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An Oxford Tale

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                                                                             oxford.tale_to.post

 

 

 

The storm had been following the rider all day, like some dark monster bent on impeding his holy mission as he galloped across the plains and down the old Roman road. He thought he had outrun it as night closed in and he was nearly there, but the thunder clouds caught up with him several miles from his destination. The storm’s full might was upon him by the time he crested the last rise and could see across the windswept field to the castle below him, a dim outline barely visible through the curtain of rain.

As the rider drew nearer he could see the flickering of an unshielded flame through the great open gate of the castle. A figure, protected from the storm by the strong walls of the keep, detached itself from the shadows.

“Who goes there?”

The challenge startled the rider’s horse so that it faltered. The lightning that streaked across the sky, followed seconds later by a peel of thunder loud enough to make the ground shake, further unsettling the beast so that it jostled, and pranced, its nostrils flaring at the smell of cordite and new stone. The rider fought for control, turning the animal in a dancing circle to try and settle it.

“Ulric de Charney. I seek Sir Giles de Coudrai,” the rider said when the horse was finally still.

“Then you have found him, Sir Ulric.” The figure turned and reached up to release the flaming torch held tight in the wall sconce. He brought it down so that the flickering light danced across his face, accentuating lines and crevices and turning the ginger hair even brighter.

Ulric breathed a sigh of relief and quickly dismounted. “It is good to see you again, Giles,” he said, holding onto the horse’s rains while he threw the other around his brother knight’s shoulders.

“You have travelled far,” Giles said, returning the awkward one-handed clasp.

“That I have and the road has not been kind. I have been chased by this storm since early morn but it caught me up and now I am soaked to the skin.”

Giles stepped back. “Come then. The hour is late and the castle sleeps. We will see to the horse first then repair to my private chamber. We won’t be disturbed.”

They headed to the stable and Ulric wiped the horse down with some old rags and straw while Giles filled a bucket with oats from a wooden bin by the stable door. They left the horse happily munching and Giles led the way to a narrow door in the inner wall of the keep. They climbed the stone steps of a curving staircase high up into the castle tower, Ulric’s leather boots squelching uncomfortably at each tread, until finally the staircase opened up into a large circular room. A fire blazed in the fireplace carved into the far wall, sending out an illusion of warmth to beat back the cold wet air that haunted through the narrow slit window on the lee side of the room.

A sturdy desk of fine darkened oak centred the room, chairs set before and aft, and Ulric put the satchel he was carrying upon it before heading for the warmth of the stone bench that jutted outwards from the hearth. Heaving a sigh of relief he sat and began to pull off his boots, stretching out his feet so they almost touched the flames. Vapour rose from the sodden woollen hose in steamy tendrils.

“Here, this should help warm you.” Giles was beside him, a goblet in his hand.

Ulric accepted the offering, letting the syrupy liquid slide past his lips and fill his mouth before swallowing down its heat. He belched loud and long as the warmth hit his belly. He sipped again at the wine, taking it slowly this time, savouring the taste.

“A fine vintage, Giles. From your de Coudrai vineyards is it not?”

Giles nodded, settling himself on the opposite bench and taking a sip from his own goblet. “It is! The last of what we brought with us on our return from Normandy. It will be some time before we can replenish our supplies.”

“Then I shall savour this all the more.”

The fire crackled and spat, shooting out red sparks to land on Ulric’s hose and smoulder. He brushed them away with a casual hand.

Giles waited as the silence stretched before finally speaking. “You have it?” he said, a tinge of anxiety colouring his words.

Ulric smiled and nodded towards the satchel “I do,” he said. Reluctant to leave the heat he stood anyway and reached out for the pack, opening it to draw out a cylindrical object wrapped in protective waxed cerecloth. He laid it reverently down on the desk.

“Ah,” Giles breathed, rising from his seat.

“Do you know of a trustworthy soul who can be relied upon for the next step in our plan?”

“I do indeed,” Giles said, brushing his hand over the object with the same reverence as Ulric. “Two in fact.” He looked up at Ulric. “I have just the men in mind.”

 

~~~

 

Raedwolf nudged his bed companion with his elbow and received a soft grunt in response. He waited but the complaint was followed only by a snore that signalled a slide back into sleep. He pursed his lips and nudged the sleeping form again, harder this time.

“Beau, the sun is ready to rise. Time for you to bestir yourself.”

There was a snuffle and a shifting of the bed linens as Guillaume le Beau rolled over to face Rae, one blue eye slitting open to glare at him. Rae grinned at his French knight and lover, although there wasn’t very much that was knightly about Guillaume de Vienne at the moment with the short hair standing askew, morning shadow of beard bruising his cheeks and chin and a look of discontent screwing up his face.

“The sun’s barely up, Rae,” Beau whined, freeing a hand from the covers to pull Rae down to him. “We can tarry awhile.”

Rae let him have his way, sinking into those arms to enjoy the feel of Beau’s skin against his and the firm pressure of his mouth. Beau turned them so Rae was underneath and rained kisses on his face and down his neck, his whiskers rough and tickling.

Despite Beau’s claim the sun was already sending shafts of light through the narrow windows of the small room and outside a cock crowed its raucous dawn greeting. Rae could hear the sounds of the castle coming to life, the barking of the castle dogs and shouts and whistles of the masons and stone cutters arriving for their day’s work of putting the finishing touches to the castle. Although Rae suspected that Giles would be forever coming up with new improvements and renovations to his holding that would require the employment of a semi-permanent staff of builders for some time.

He let Beau kiss him once more then heaved him off.

“You might be able to laze about but I have work to do.” Rae said, reaching for his shift and leggings. He tried to be stern, he really did, but the pout of Beau’s mouth made his lips twitch despite himself. “Though I do believe you promised Giles to be at the training field early this fine day, Sir Knight,” he finished, letting his smile broaden at the way Beau flung himself backwards on the bed and draped an arm over his eyes.

“I am but a mere slave, to be chivvied and put upon,” he said with an exaggerated sigh.

Rae picked up a discarded cushion and hit him with it, dodging as the cushion was grabbed and thrown back at him.

Beau was still untangling himself from the bedclothes when Rae, now fully dressed, opened the door to the small castle room he called his own and looked out. The passage and stairs leading down to the main hall were empty. Most of the people who belonged to the castle of Winterton Cowley were aware of their relationship but Rae kept up both discretion and appearances, knowing while his brother-in-law, Sir Giles of Cowley as he now named himself, tolerated the situation he did not condone it.

Rae looked back into the room to find Beau still lying on the bed, albeit above the covers now, his naked body glowing gold in the sunlight. He was propped up on his elbow, his eyes fixed firmly on Rae.

Rae hesitated, then swallowed. “You’d best hurry, Sir Knight,” he said. “Lest all the food is gone before you can break your fast.” He closed the door hastily, before he could change his mind.

The sun warmed Rae’s face as he crossed the courtyard and the only evidence of the storm Rae had heard raging in the night were the puddles and mud that dotted the keep and the water that overflowed the barrels and horse troughs. The storm had been a sign of the seasons changing and the inevitable approach of winter’s bleak reign. But the days still held promise of sun and warmth and Rae let the golden rays soak into him and lighten his heart.

The kitchens were a hive of activity when Rae entered, despite the early hour. Pot boys bustled in and out bearing beakers full of ale for the main hall and coming back with empty pots, while serving girls accepted trays of bread fresh from the ovens and the cooks sweated over open fires and steaming cauldrons. He grabbed a wayward apple from the barrel by the door and headed out to the stables. A more filling breakfast would have to wait until after he’d spoken with Maugre. One of the mares was about to foal and the ostler had intended sitting the night through with her in case of the mare’s need. Rae wanted to check the oat bins as well. Weevils had infested the last batch and he could ill afford to have the newly filled bins infected as well.

Rae’s life as castellan was easier now that Giles and Beau had returned from the Holy Land. Giles was once again ensconced as lord of castle and Beau had been put in charge of the garrison. But there was still much to do to ensure the smooth running of the household, the overseeing of the final touches to the castle, and orders from Giles to follow. His life was a busy one, but he had a home and a family, responsibility not usually assigned to a Saxon by a Norman Lord, and he had Beau. He was content.

Maugre called a cheery greeting as soon as he saw Rae’s shadow cross the open stable doorway.

“How fares the mare?” Rae queried as made his way to where the stableman was sorting through various items of tack.

“Another fine young colt, born just before the midnight hour. She’s a good breeder is Wind, birthed this one as easy as the first.” Maugre told him. He moved off to the far stall. “Come see for yourself.”

Rae followed, leaning his arms on the low wooden railing to study the mare and the newborn foal that was standing on still unsteady legs as he suckled from his dam. Maugre was right, it was indeed a fine looking colt, dark like its mother but with a jagged blaze of white across its forehead.

“Foudre,” Rae said, studying the colt. “For the white blaze,” he continued at Maugre’s puzzled look.

Maugre grinned, “The Norman tongue for lightning. Yes, a good name for the youngster. He was certainly born at the height of the storm as well. I’m sure the lady Aelfware and Sir Giles will agree.”

Rae smiled at this subtle reminder of his status in the Norman household. His acceptance had been hard won but he knew that while Maugre and the other Normans accepted his governorship over them they did not forget his Saxon breeding.

The colt, disturbed by the voices and studied gaze of the men, gave a nervous start and pulled away from his dam.

“Easy there, little one,” Rae calmed, entering the stall to lay a gentle hand on the colt’s neck. Wind neighed a greeting and sniffed at his hand. Rae laughed and let the mare have her way, giving up his early breakfast to her.

“Knows a soft touch that one,” Maugre commented drily.

Rae shifted his attention from the mare and her foal. It was then he noticed the horse in the stall opposite, one that had been empty when he was last in the stables.

“Where did that beauty come from?” he asked, moving in for a closer look. The horse was huge, a destrier if he was not mistaken, the warhorse of a crusader knight. Beau’s Tonnerre was such a horse as was Giles’s Chevalier. But there were no others of that calibre within the castle or the village.

Maugre shrugged, dour and incurious. “It was stabled when I got here this morning so I filled the manger with straw and some oats like I do for the rest. Sir Giles was about last night, helped me with the mare for a while and was still treading the battlements long after the storm had hit and I went to my own bed, judging by the still lighted sconces. No doubt he would know something of the origin of the beast.”

Surprised to hear that Giles had been on some nocturnal wanderings on his own long after the castle residents had settled for the night Rae wanted to know more but the arrival at the stable door of Sebbi interrupted him before he could barely frame his question.

“Sir Giles has asked that you attend him in his private chamber.” the lad panted, looking at Rae.

“I’ll come now,” Rae acknowledged. Nodding a farewell to Maugre he followed the boy from the stable. Perhaps his questions would be answered after all.

Rae climbed the staircase to Giles’s chamber and was surprised to see Beau enter just ahead of him and take up a position of relaxed indolence against the stone wall of the room. There was someone else already there as well besides Giles, a man with the rugged look about him of someone who had spent a night, if not days, of hard travel. His curiosity aroused even more by the presence of this stranger Rae gave the man a long look and received the same regard in return, the man’s eyes widening slightly at the realisation that Rae was Saxon and obviously of some importance in the household.

Ignoring the look Rae slid his gaze to Sir Giles. “You wanted me, Giles?” he said.

“Yes, Raedwolf, I did.” If Giles had seen the silent exchange between Rae and the stranger he gave no indication, although by the slight smile turning his lips up Rae suspected he had. Nothing very much passed by his brother-in-law. “I have a mission for you and Beau that will take you both away from the castle for a few days.”

“But what of my duties here?” Rae said, surprised that Giles would be willing to send him away when the harvest was due. Beau had moved to stand beside him with quiet attention and was watching Giles and the stranger with a wary eye. Rae glanced at him but he shook his head. Beau had no idea what was going on either.

“Offa can take over, it won’t hurt for him to begin the harvest under my direction,” Giles told him, reading Rae’s mind. “Besides, you should be gone for a few days only. As you are both now here I can explain what I want you to do without having to repeat myself,” Giles continued, eyeing both Rae and Beau.

“This is Ulric de Charney, lately come from the Holy Land.” His gaze shifted to include the stranger. “This, Sir Ulric, is Guillaume de Vienne, who served with me bravely in Jerusalem”

Sir Ulric acknowledged the introduction with a nod. “Giles has told me of your exploits in the Holy Land, Sir Guillaume. The tales have kept me much entertained through the night.” Beau inclined his head but remained silent.

“And Raedwolf, castellan of the castle and my holdings here in England,” Giles continued the introduction. “They both have my complete trust and you can be sure they will carry out this errand with all due diligence.”

Ulric favoured Rae with a jaundiced look. “I’m sure they will, Giles.”

“What exactly is this assignment, Giles?” Beau finally broke his silence, impatience colouring his tone.

Instead of answering the question Giles posed a question of his own. “You know the story of Joseph of Arimathea do you not?”

“As told by Nicodemus?” Beau replied. “Of course, the body of Jesus was taken by Joseph and buried in his own tomb, to then rise again at the Resurrection.”

Rae nodded, the story as familiar to him as it was to Beau; Giles had made sure his education included a study of the gospels.

“But what is that to do with us?” Beau asked Giles.

“Patience, Beau,” Giles admonished. Ulric waited with a half-smile on his face.

“There are some who say Joseph of Arimathea travelled to these isles and built his church here among the Britons,” Giles continued. “Do you know of those stories, Beau?”

Beau shrugged. “There was talk sometimes as we travelled to the holy land, amongst the priests and the learned who have read the texts.”

“And what about you, Rae?”

“You showed me something once, Giles, did you not? That mentioned Joseph and told of the first church at Glastonbury?”

Giles looked pleased. “Your memory has always been good, Raedwolf. There have indeed been such stories penned by the early Christian writers.” He moved behind his desk and began to carefully unroll a fragile scroll and spread it out. It was old, very old, the writing it contained still visible but archaic and faded. There were ragged holes in and around the edges of the animal skin parchment as if it were worm-eaten and worn by the deprivations of time.

“But, what would you both say if we were to have at our fingertips sure proof of Joseph’s travels?”

Beau’s eyes widened and Rae took a step forward.

“It can’t be, can it?” Beau exclaimed gazing down at the desk, at the scroll that lay there.

“We believe it is,” Ulric said, speaking for the first time since Giles began his explanation. “A manuscript written in Joseph’s own hand. I found it in Genoa, in the hands of a city merchant. He was persuaded to part with it.”

“You mean you stole it?” Beau interrupted.

“Acquired,” Ulric corrected with a wry grin. “The merchant in whose possession it was is a collector of religious artefacts, pillaged during the crusades from churches and monasteries and sold to him by the thieves. Such a relic as this could hardly be left in the hands of such a man could it not? The merchant claimed the scroll recounted Joseph’s journey from the Holy Land to these isles, carrying the holy grail used by Jesus at the last supper.”

“The grail! The one that Arthur of the Britons sought for so long and never found?” Rae asked.

“That there ever was such a man as Arthur is mere hearsay, despite what Monmouth writes in his histories. You rely too much on populist theory and myths, Rae,” Giles admonished. “The man’s a charlatan who has taken the word of tale-spinners and mystics as gospel. But this,” Giles thumped the table for emphasis, “is authentic. I would stake my life upon it.”

“If it is as we believe, then not only have we unearthed one of the most valuable scrolls in Christianity but it might also reveal the secret of the grail, where it has been hidden all this time.” Ulric said.

“How will we know?” Beau asked. “That it’s authentic I mean, or that it even mentions the grail. If I’m not mistaken the writing is Aramaic.” He looked pointedly at Ulric. “And there are few scholars versed in the dead language in these Isles, unless you are one Sir Ulric?”

Ulric appeared unmoved by Beau’s all too apparent sarcasm. “Alas, you are quite correct, Sir Guillaume. My many abilities do not extend to the reading of dead languages.” He glanced at Giles. “But we do have a solution.”

Giles nodded. “That’s where you and Rae come in, Beau,” Giles told him. “Ulric has travelled long and hard to bring the scroll thus far but now he must head to his own holdings where he is much needed.” He studied them both before continuing. “I, we, want the two of you to continue the scroll’s journey, to the priory of St Frideswide, in Oxford where the Augustinians have established a place of learning. The scroll will be safe there and the good friars can study it at their leisure and, hopefully, verify authenticity.”

Rae risked a quick look at Beau, who seemed bemused by the order.

“Is that all?” Beau asked.

Giles smiled. “Actually, no it’s not. I have been making arrangements with the friars for Henry to attend the priory for the next two years, to further his education. The arrival of the scroll has been fortuitous in that as well ensuring its safe delivery to the friars you can also safely deliver my son to their care.”

“Does Aelfware know of this?” Rae blurted surprised at the announcement and shocked that his sister would have agreed to her eldest son leaving the castle and his family at such a tender age, and that she hadn’t mentioned the arrangement to him.

“The Lady Aelfware is aware of the importance of Henry’s education and my wish is that he attends the friars.” The rebuke was clear. Rae might be his brother-in-law and his castellan but Giles was master of the castle and all who lived in it.

“When do we leave?” Beau asked.

“Immediately,” Giles told him as he began to carefully roll the scroll up again. “See to your mounts, Henry will be waiting for you in the courtyard.”

With nothing further to keep them Rae and Beau nodded their acquiescence and turned to leave. Rae led the way down the winding stairs at a brisk pace, Beau practically treading on his heels.

“Well, that was unexpected,” he said.

“What?” Rae asked with a grin. “Sir Ulric or the Scroll?”

The only sound was of their echoing footfalls as Beau considered. “Both,” he said finally.

Rae huffed out a laugh. “You seemed strangely unimpressed by Sir Ulric at least. Why might that be?”

Again a hesitation before Beau answered. “I’ve seen men like him before. They have no qualms about raiding churches and monasteries along the crusader route, on the assumption that whatever they take belongs to them, holy relic or not. Then they keep them for themselves, give them to their own churches or sell them.”

They had reached the ground level and continued shoulder to shoulder along the passage.

“And anyway he was boorish,” Beau finished.

“He certainly doesn’t seem to like Saxons,” Rae commented.

“Exactly!

Oddly touched by Beau’s obvious chagrin on his and his fellow Saxons’ behalf, Rae nudged his shoulder. “We should have enough time to visit the kitchen before we leave. The summons came before I could get breakfast,” he said. As expected Beau’s face lit up with a broad smile.

“Neither did I!” he said. “Someone kept me lying abed well past sunrise.”

Rae gave him a shove. “Don’t blame me for your own tardiness, Sir Knight.”

Beau grinned and shoved him back then laughed and clasped his arm around Rae’s shoulder as they followed the enticing smells of cooking meat and freshly baked bread.

~~~

It was a scene of some confusion that greeted Rae and Beau as they led Star and Tonnerre from the stables and into the courtyard. They had eaten a hearty breakfast then collected their swords, Rae the blessed sword Beau had given him as morning gift when they became lovers and Beau the one made for him by Mathieu in his forge.

It seemed all the castle staff were present, milling about in untidy heaps or running to obey Giles’ orders as he issued them in crisp commands.

Aelfware and Ysabel stood by the steps, each holding a handkerchief to their eyes while Beornwynn, the children’s nurse was behind them, equally as dewy eyed. Father Simon, the castle’s priest, stood beside the weeping trio, looking lost and uncertain at the emotional display but determined to offer what ecumenical support he could. Meanwhile the youngest de Coudrai children, young Giles and Adela, ran amok with the other castle children, dodging around the adults and coming dangerously close to the hooves of the skittering horses. Their brother, Henry, watched impassively from beside his father, seemingly unmoved by the fuss being generated around him. Sir Ulric was already mounted, his horse stamping restlessly, both rider and mount impatient to be off.

Giles spotted their arrival and swung towards them. “At last,” he said. He handed Rae the scroll now well-wrapped again in its protective covering. “It will be but a few hours journey to the priory but you will be best to stay the night before returning. The friars will no doubt put you up or you can find lodgings in the town if you wish,” he added with a slight smile at Beau’s grimace. He held out a small leather coin pouch. “This should be sufficient to see you through the journey.”

Rae nodded, hooking the pouch onto his belt and adding the scroll to the satchel slung across his shoulder.

“I’ll take my leave, Giles, if I may,” Ulric spoke up.

“Of course.” Giles moved off to say his farewells to the knight, leaving Henry to wander off to his mother’s side.

Rae handed the reins of his horse to Beau and approached his weeping sister laying his hand on her arm.

“He won’t be gone for long, Aelfware. And the friars will treat him well,” he said trying to be of some comfort to the distressed mother.

Aelfware sniffed and looked up at him, an accusation in her eyes. “Did you know of this, Rae?”

Rae shook his head. “Not until this morning. Giles had not confided his intentions to me.”

“Don’t take on so, mother,” Henry said. “I’m old enough now to go with Rae and Beau to Oxford on my own.”

“And I suppose you think you are old enough to leave your family and stay with the holy fathers for two full years, on your own,” Aelfware demanded.

Henry looked uncertain at that but drew himself up to his full height. “I must go where my father wills,” he said.

“We have spoken of this before, Aelfware.” It was Giles, his sudden appearance startling them both. Rae glanced over in time to see Ulric sketch a nodding salute to Beau before turning his horse to the castle gate.

“Yes, I know, Giles,” Aelfware murmured. “But I had thought the intent was for a later time. Henry is but thirteen after all.”

“And well into the time when he should be putting childish things away and preparing for adulthood, rather than playing games with the castle brats.” Giles looked pointedly to where Henry had wandered away again, no doubt bored with the adult conversation, and was playing tag around a water barrel with Sebbi. “I have taken his education as far as I can, he must learn now what the friars can teach him.”

Aelfware sniffed again but said nothing, no doubt aware there was no countenancing her husband once he had made up his mind. Giles carried on speaking, taking his wife’s silence as acquiescence.

“As it happens, Rae and Beau must travel to Oxford on an errand so they can take Henry now rather than wait until after the harvest and risk a turn in the weather.” Having dispelled all argument to his satisfaction Giles shouted to his son and waited impatiently while the two boys took their leave of each other.

“Take care of my boy, won’t you?” Aelfware said, looking at Rae and Beau, her son held to her in a tight hug.

“I will,” Rae assured her and Beau nodded his own agreement.

Aelfware smiled gratefully at them as Henry wriggled indignantly in her grasp. “Mother!” he complained, breaking free. But then he hugged her back with the same care before dutifully accepting the embraces of both Ysabel and Beornwynn. Finally he turned to his father and offered his hand.

“Goodbye, father,” he said with the studied air only a youth swaying between childhood and maturity can display.

Giles took the outstretched hand with the same serious mien as his son, a small smile playing at his lips. “Farewell, my boy. Tend well to your studies and obey the instructions of the friars at the priory, as well as those of Rae and Beau on your journey there.”

Sebbi brought Henry’s mount forward and he slid quickly into the saddle. “I will, father,” he responded.

Beau grinned at Rae and threw him Star’s reins. They were ready in minutes and Giles handed the lead to the packhorse that was carrying Henry’s possessions to Rae.

Father Simon stepped forward and offered up his blessing for the journey and the little band headed out through the castle gates and onto the road. Rae turned to wave a final farewell but Henry kept his eyes to the front, stoic to the last.

~~~

They travelled on through the morning keeping up a slow but steady pace through the forest, following the river road to Oxford until the sun was at its zenith. There was no need for haste, as Beau had commented when they first set out. It was a fine day and they had plenty of time to reach their destination before darkness fell. Rae had to agree, it wasn’t often he had a chance to spend so much time in Beau’s company, their separate duties kept them too much apart. So he would make the most of it, even with the addition of young Henry, who, with the emotional parting from his family now behind him, kept up such a constant stream of questions and prattle that Rae felt his head spin.

At noon they stopped and left the road to a place that offered a bend in the river and a small glade where the current stilled and willows trailed their drooping branches into the cool sun-dappled water.

Rae unpacked the provisions provided by the kitchen drudges from the pouches on the packhorse. He and Beau settled on the bank, amongst the long grass and trees munching on bread and cheese, keeping a subtle awareness of Henry who was sitting a little distance away by the water’s edge eating his own bread and watching intently as the river slid gracefully by. It was cool and quiet in the glade, far from any holding and the village outskirts.

A jingling sound caught Rae’s attention and he looked over at the horses, hobbled under the shade of some trees. Star shifted restlessly, flicking a tail at some bothersome flies, making Rae’s satchel, tied securely to the back of his saddle, bounce slightly.

“Do you believe the tales of Arthur and his knights?” he asked Beau, recalled to the other reason for their journey.

Beau considered for a moment then shrugged. “I haven’t read the works of Monmouth as Giles has but I’ve heard the legends often enough.” He looked at Rae. “You believe them though,” he commented shrewdly.

Rae grinned. “My grandfather was the village bard and told stories and sang the songs of our people around the fires at night. He told about the king of the old people too, the Britons, and how he fought and held off the invaders from the northern lands after the Romans left. My grandfather’s father was from the wild parts of Cymru and grandfather said his sire had learned the tales from there. So yes, I think there is reason to believe of the king, and perhaps his search for the grail.”

“Well, the parchment we take to St Frideswide’s might tell us where Joseph buried the thing in any event. But I’d be just as happy with the legends and not the knowledge. Sometimes that’s the better of the two.”

Rae started to say something, a comment on Beau’s lack of curiosity or sense of adventure, which was perhaps an unworthy tease given the man’s past as a crusader, but Henry distracted them both before Rae could speak.

“There’s fish in here, Rae,” the boy shouted. He’d divested himself of his outer clothing and his boots and now sat on a fallen log that jutted out from the river bank wearing just his undershirt and hose, his bare feet dangling in the river. He was stabbing at the water with a long pointed stick. “Maybe I can catch one.”

“You can spear one for our dinner,” Rae called back.

“And don’t fall in,” Beau added.

Henry deigned a look of scorn at Beau before turning back to his preoccupation of fishing. Rae shifted his attention back to Beau, who was busy brushing crumbs off his tunic.

“Will you ever go again, to take the cross I mean?” he asked, keeping his tone as casual as he could.

Beau studied him for a long moment and Rae wondered what his answer would be, or if indeed he would answer at all. But Beau finally spoke and there was a glint of mischief in his eyes when he did.

“Giles will never go to the crusade now, his leg will not permit it and I doubt that Aelfware would either. And I? I have no desire to embark on another crusade either with or without him.” He lay back and laced his hands behind his head. “No, I’ll stay right here and chase all the pretty Saxon maidens until I’m an old greybeard. And I’ll settle by the fire at night and you can bring me mulled wine and rub my feet for me.”

Rae aimed a swat in his direction but was saved from answering by a loud splash and startled exclamation that brought them both to their feet.

“Henry!” Beau shouted, looking desperately at the log that was now horribly empty. He started down towards the river.

Rae hadn’t moved but was studying the water expectantly. He smiled and had caught Beau’s arm to hold him back when a dark head broke the surface.

“It’s all right, Beau. Henry can swim like one of those fish he was trying to catch.”

Henry came up from the water laughing and splashing. “’Tis a fine day for bathing,” he shouted. “Why don’t you both join me? Unless you’re frightened of getting wet!”

Rae and Beau exchanged a glance.

“Why not?” Beau said, grinning.

Rae grinned back at him and they both started stripping off their outer garments, hopping from one foot to another to get their boots off then treading carefully over river-worn stones until it was deep enough to swim.

The water was cold and Rae sucked in a breath at the shock of it. Beau struck out with powerful strokes, heading determinedly towards a still laughing Henry, who uttered a very unmanly squeak and shout of ‘no’ before attempting to paddle away. Beau caught him up and pounced, pushing the lad under the water. He came up spluttering and laughing then sprang, managing to catch Beau by surprise.

Rae watched them wrestling for a moment before deciding to come to the rescue, although whose rescue he wasn’t entirely sure. But they turned on him as one and he tasted river water. Two grinning faces were staring at him when he surfaced and he retaliated with a splash that swamped them both.

They played awhile until Henry found it more fun to try his fish catching techniques again, sliding under the water like a brown otter to chase after the elusive silver streaks, leaving Rae and Beau to drift together to where the gentle current lapped past; away a little from Henry and the water’s edge. They stopped there, treading water, being pushed and pulled by the flow of the current until Beau’s hands gripped Rae’s hips under cover of the water and they stayed there steady, facing each other.

“It’s a long time since I swam for the pleasure of it instead of the necessity. Not since I was as young as Henry.” Beau said, turning his face up to the sun and closing his eyes to the brightness.

Rae watched the river droplets run from the short hair, beading those long lashes only to melt and run down Beau’s face and imagined him as a gangly boy, full of life and mischief, playing with the other boys of noble birth in his far away Vienne, and wished he’d known that laughing boy but glad he knew the man he’d become.

As if divining his thoughts Beau moved closer so that they were only inches apart and their legs tangled as they stayed there letting the river work them together, hiding them from the outside world.

The raucous caw of jackdaws breaking cover from the riverbank broke the moment and Rae swung around suddenly aware of how far away they had drifted.

“Where’s Henry?” he demanded, dismayed that there was no sign of the boy. They should still be able to see him even from this distance. Panic gripped him and he started swimming back the way they had come with desperate strokes, knowing Beau followed him. It took a few short moments to reach the water’s edge and even less for them to make their dripping way from the water.

It was still quiet and peaceful in the grove. Star, Tonnerre and the packhorse were where they had been left, but there was no sign of Fleur, Henry’s mare, and there was no sign of Henry. Another quick glance showed his clothes were missing too.

Beau had also taken this all in, but he picked up on something Doyle missed in his anxiety.

“Rae, your satchel.”

Rae swung his glance back to the horses, to the back of Star’s saddle that no longer contained his satchel, or the scroll.

“Damn!” Rae moaned in disbelief.

“Henry wouldn’t be playing another trick on us by any chance?” Beau said, the doubt in his voice betraying his own scepticism at the suggestion.

Rae shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Henry’s full of mischief at times but there’s no sense to him taking the satchel and running off.”

They quickly searched the area anyway and shouted out for the wayward Henry but there was no response.

“How could this have happened so quickly?” Rae demanded, moving back to where the horses stood while Beau continued to look amongst the river reeds and high grass. “We were only out of earshot for a few minutes.” Worry creased his forehead. How was he going to explain this to Giles? The man had trusted him with both his son and his precious scroll; now Rae had lost them both.

“It’s not your fault Rae.” Beau answered his unspoken question as if he’d read his mind. “Someone passing might have seen the horses and taken the opportunity to do some petty pilfering. It would only have taken a moment.”

“But why only my satchel? Why not take the packhorse? That’s of more obvious value than an old case tied to a saddle, and what about Henry? And why isn’t it my fault?” he rounded on Beau. “I was off dallying in a river while the scroll and Henry went missing.”

“So was I,” Beau responded, looking at Rae intently. “If there is blame to lay then it belongs with me too, Rae. I took on the same responsibility you did, so don’t take on so. We share this as we share everything.”

Rae looked at him gratefully, buoyed in the certainty that they would face Giles’ wrath together if need be.

“Besides, I’ve found something,” Beau continued when he was satisfied that his words had had the desired effect.

Rae walked over to where Beau was studying the ground not far from where he was standing, but hidden from the river by trees. The long grass there was flattened, much the same as the way it was flattened where Star and Tonnerre were stamping their impatience.

“Someone’s been here recently,” Beau said. “Looks like two horses at least and they made sure they weren’t seen.”

“Not someone just passing by then,” Rae muttered, looking down at the trampled grass. The horses must have been there for some time, judging by the droppings that populated the area. He wondered what the watchers might have observed from their concealment. He and Beau were always careful when not alone; that they might unwittingly have been observed by unknown eyes was galling.

“No, which answers your question about why only your satchel. They knew what they were looking for and awaited their opportunity. Henry could have been a bonus to them, to seek ransom for his safe return perhaps.”

Rae shuddered at the thought of Henry in the hands of the villains and what they might do to him. “But how would they know of the scroll?” he asked. “No one else knew of it, just us.”

“The merchant Ulric stole it from did. Ulric rode hard and fast to get that scroll to Giles, almost as if he was being pursued,” Beau mused, his eyes thoughtful. “He left the castle very hurriedly as well.”

Rae remembered that Beau had not exactly taken to the man as the comrade-in-arms that Rae would have expected. And when he thought about it there had been something odd about the way Ulric had disappeared so abruptly. Still.

“It’s a long way to chase a man,” he said, reluctant to jump to too many conclusions with nothing more convincing than a missing satchel and young boy to go on.

“Not for something as valuable as the scroll could prove to be,” Beau argued. “I’ve known men go to greater lengths than a few miles of hard riding to get back what they consider rightfully theirs.”

Rae frowned. “Valuable it might be, but Henry is the more so,” he said. “We have to get him back, Beau.”

Beau bent forward to brush his lips over Rae’s in a quick, tender gesture of comfort. “We will,” he promised soothingly. “We’ll find Henry and we’ll get the scroll back and safely to the abbey, just as Giles wanted.”

Rae let Beau’s certainty reassure him despite the odds that seemed to be stacked against them. Rae wanted his nephew back, safe, sound and whole. If Beau believed they could do that he would too.

~~~

The warmth of the day had all but dried them when they pulled on the clothes they had abandoned without a second thought such a short time before, then they untethered the horses. It was easy to see where the unknown riders had made their way through the grass, but once at the road their tracks were lost amongst the churned up mud and mass of horse, oxen and cart tracks that showed at the edge of the road only to disappear at the well-beaten surface.

“Which way?” Beau mused.

But the question couldn’t be answered with any certainty. The thieves could have gone back the way of Cowley or forward to Oxford, or even across country to who knew where.

Rae had moved further along and was crouched over examining the road at ground level, trying the seemingly impossible task of sorting one set of horseshoe imprints from another. His body stiffened and he bent closer to the side of the road peering intently for a moment at the quagmire.

“Henry was here,” he said finally. His tone was flat, the guilt at losing track of a loved nephew coming though in the taunt shoulders

“How do you know that?” Beau asked moving closer, doubt that anyone could make out an individual horse’s tracks in that mess waring with new hope.

Rae pointed to the edge of the road. “That’s Fleur’s shoe. I was there when Mathieu cast it. There was a fault; just a small dent on the edge but Mathieu was annoyed. I told him not to bother recasting, the shoe would serve its purpose as was.”

Beau crouched down beside him and studied the ground. Rae was right, the outline of a horse shoe could be seen at the very edge of the road, as if the rider had walked his horse through the grass and one stray hoof had stepped onto the roadway. There was a distinct nick in the imprint.

“That might have been made when we arrived here,” Beau countered.

Rae shook his head. “No, we left the road further back, by the oak there.” He pointed to the huge tree that stood some yards away, casting its shadow across the road. “And anyway, it’s facing the wrong way, going further along the road, not away from it.”

“So they came out at this point, or at least Fleur did. The question is, did they stay on the road, or did they turn off?”

Rae shook his head again, Beau’s question too big a conundrum for either of them to answer with any surety.

“We’ll have to make a decision, Rae.” Beau told him. He looked towards the sky and the sun now starting to dip down to the horizon. It was late afternoon and the day would be heading towards twilight all too soon. “We will lose the light soon enough. The thieves will need to stop, as will we.”

Beau watched the play of emotions cross his friend’s face; uncertainty, hopelessness, his heart breaking a little for the hard choice it was Rae’s lot to make. Then determination won out.

“I think Oxford is our best bet,” he finally said.

“I agree,” Beau said, wasting no time in mounting Tonnerre. “They can’t have got too far ahead of us; with luck we’ll catch them up before they reach the town.”

Rae mounted Star and as one they turned their mounts’ heads towards the east and set off down the road at a gallop.

~~~

The forest soon gave way to open meadow, outlying farmsteads and the beginnings of Oxford with no sign of those they pursued. Already the sky was streaked with an orange hue, casting a mellow glow on the Cherwell as they crossed the wooden bridge over the river. It wasn’t long before they reached the ditch surrounding the town walls and entered through the east gate.

Rae took the lead through surprisingly well laid out streets that wound in orderly fashion through the town. Beau followed wrinkling his nose at the fetid smell coming from the garbage pails and chamber pots emptied out onto the already muddy streets, the ripeness of offal from slaughtered beasts adding its own unique flavouring to the mix. Lantern and oil lights had begun to appear in the windows of the mix of timber and stone built houses and shops, a nod to the increasing twilight

Oxford, lying as it was in the heart of the kingdom and on important trade routes, was a busy bustling town of a surprisingly large number of churches: St Peter’s in the East, St Mary’s, All Saints, Beau counted them as they passed. Despite the lateness of the day the inhabitants were still abroad, the streets full of milling people, horses and livestock; children dashing in and out between adults and around the pigs left lose to roam. Carts laden with fancy goods and produce trundled along the road, heading to their close-by holdings before the town gates were closed, and the taverns were doing a brisk trade, their patrons spilling out onto the street.

“I’d forgotten,” Rae said, pulling Star to a halt. “It’s the week of the St Frideswide fair.” he continued at Beau’s questioning look. “It will be like looking for a white hare in a snowstorm to find our thieves in this crowd, even if we knew who we were searching for.”

“We’ll not find anything tonight,” Beau agreed. “Do you know of an inn? The horses need rest and feed, and so do I,” he added.

Rae looked around at the throng of people, as if trying to draw out those he sought by the mere force of his will but there were too many faces and too much movement and it was an impossible task.

“You’re right,” he finally said, reluctance clouding his voice. He kicked Star into a trot then grinned. “’Tis best not to keep the beasts from their fodder lest the poor things fade from hunger,”

Beau cast him a sideways look as he drew abreast. “I will trust that you speak only of the horses,” he said, pleased that Rae was teasing him.

Rae’s grin got wider. “There is an inn that I know of. It’s not far from here,” he said, ignoring Beau’s comment. “The Hound. I’ve stayed there before and the room they provide is adequate but the food is excellent.”

“Then lead on,” Beau encouraged.

There was a sizable crowd milling around in the dim interior of the inn, drinking, singing and pounding on the long wooden tables for service, the roiling noise audible before they had even turned into the street. A fire was smouldering on a hearth in a dark recess, sending a smoke haze through the hall that made Beau’s eyes sting as soon as they entered. There was a counter towards the back where the innkeeper, a heavy set man of middle age with long greasy hair half obscuring his face, was dispensing tankards of ale to thirsty customers - the ones not being served by the wench gliding from table to table with a tray full of tankards and steaming pots of mutton stew. He blinked in recognition when Rae approached.

“Ah, Raedwolf. Here on business for Sir Giles are you?” he asked, pausing only to collect silver pennies for the ales.

“That’s right, Ansell” Rae answered. “Your room is available I trust.”

“Ah no, you’re too late, let it out to a young gentleman not that long past. There’s the big room at the back though, next to the stables, if you’ve a mind to share. There’s still space for you and your friend.”

Rae pulled a face and glanced at Beau.

“You’ll be lucky to find anything else it being a fair day,” Ansell reminded them, seeing their expressions. “You can see for yourselves the town’s packed.”

Rae gave a curt nod. “If that’s all there is to be had then so be it.”

“Right, that’ll be a shilling, payable now.”

“A shilling for a straw bed in a shared room!” Rae was outraged.

The innkeeper shrugged. “Like I said, the town’s packed. But as it’s you, Raedwolf, I’ll throw in a tankard of ale for you and your friend, and a bowl of the stew. So what say you? Do you want the bed or not?”

It might have been coincidence but the wench passed by them at just that moment, her tray full of bowls of the proffered stew. Beau sniffed appreciatively.

“I say give the man his money, Rae, and let’s be done with it.”

Rae shook his head and tutted in disgust but Beau could see the twinkle in his eye as he unhooked the money pouch Giles had given him from his belt and fished out the required coin.

“Set yourselves down,” Ansell told them. “Emy will bring you your victuals.”

“You’ve not come across any strangers arriving in the last while by any chance?” Beau asked.

Ansell looked around the long room. “Strangers?” he said. “There’s nothing but strangers here today. Take your pick young sir.”

Beau sighed at the hopelessness of the question and followed Rae to the far end of the room where they found a space at the edge of a table tucked up against the stone wall of the inn. As promised Emy arrived with their food and ale, served in rather grimy looking pots that Beau was sure had not seen a drop of cleansing water in some time, and a side platter of bread just this side of mouldy. But as promised, the stew was delicious and Beau scooped up the last drop with the bread before sitting back with a contented smile, to find Rae looking at him with amused affection.

“Enjoy that, did you?” he asked. Beau grinned his answer. “In that case, and as there’s no more bread, seeing you’ve eaten the last two pieces, we’d best go and see to the horses.”

~~~

 

                                                             

 

Night had fallen leaving a rich sour darkness in the inn’s stable, relieved only by the lantern throwing a feeble light across the entrance. They took care of the horses quickly, relieving the packhorse of its packs, and made their way to the room Ansell had offered. The rush filled room was little more than a lean-to attached to the side of the stable; long, dark and chill with a miasma of sour ale and unwashed bodies. A candle was perched on a ledge at the side of the room, its dull flickering light casting shadows across the walls and beams. There were several men already in residence, some grunting, some snoring; all were sleeping on straw mattresses in the box-like cots, two or even three to a bed.

There was one bed left, narrow and confining, its sad mattress flat and lifeless, the straw spilling out into little piles beside the frame. At least a linen that had seen many previous occupants covered the mattress and there was a blanket of sorts.

“I’ve slept in worse places,” Beau commented as a mouse scurried across his shoe and disappeared through a hole in the wall.

“I don’t believe I have a wish to know where and how that would have been,” Rae told him.

“Quiet!” A querulous voice issued from somewhere beyond the light of the candle. “There are some here trying to sleep. And as you are the last you can pinch out the candle.”

Beau hastened to obey and the room was plunged into darkness. They lay their swords close to hand beside the bed and settled as best they could, Beau lying on his side with Rae pressed up tight behind him. They used some of the packs for pillows, the rest were placed beside the swords, and they shuffled until the blanket covered them both. Beau finally fell asleep to a melody of snorts, snores and loud farts, and the gentle breeze of Rae’s breath ruffling his hair.

~~~

Another rising sun, not unlike the one of the day before when parchments and missing nephews were things undreamed of, woke Rae the next morning, its bright fingers poking through the cracks in the wall and shining on his eyelids. He sat up and rubbed at his eyes then spat out the edges of straw clinging to his lips. His bed companion was missing and so was Beau’s sword, but the other occupants of the room were stirring with varying degrees of grumbling and bemoaning of sore heads.

He didn’t wait to hear more of their complaints but gathered the packs and his own sword and went in search of his missing knight.

He heard Beau before he saw him, his voice rich in amazement.

“What in all that’s holy are you doing here?”

“I’ve come to see to Fleur.” The response was perfectly reasonable and perfectly startling, considering that Rae knew who it belonged to.

He took the necessary few steps to bring him in sight of the stable, dropped the packs he was carrying and stared with disbelief at the handsomely attired young man who stood next to Beau.

“Henry! What are you doing here?” he demanded in unconscious echo of Beau’s words.

“As I have just said to Beau, I came to see to Fleur before going off to the fair.” Henry told him with the insouciance of the very young when addressing a particularly obtuse elder. He brushed at an errant speck of hay that graced the shoulder of his brightly embroidered tunic.

“I think what your uncle means is how did you get here and where have you been since yesterday? We’ve been looking for you.” said Beau, who had obviously regained his equilibrium quicker than Rae.

“Got here on Fleur of course, and I’ve been staying in the inn.” Henry told them.

“So you’re the reason we slept on a straw mattress in a draughty barn.” There was an air of indignation in Beau’s response.

Relief at seeing his errant nephew in one piece warred with Rae’s impatience, the impatience won. Rae took a couple of long strides across the floor, gripped Henry by the ear and twisted, making the bonnet the boy wore slide and its jaunty feather bounce.

“Explain yourself!” he said, ignoring Henry’s indignant yell and jiggling to break free.

“Ow! Let go please, Rae. I’ll tell you everything,” the boy begged.

Relenting Rae released Henry’s ear and stood back, arms folded, waiting for the promised explanation, ignoring the slight grin on Beau’s face.

“Yesterday, after you both swam further along the river, I decided to explore in amongst the willows,” Henry started. “That’s when I saw them. They were skulking around just beyond the grove, looking very suspicious if I might say so.”

“Who were, Henry?” Beau enquired patiently.

“Three men. There was a Norman first. He was by that huge oak tree that stood by the road but he moved away when the other two appeared. They were knights and had fancy swords and were wearing hauberks and mantles – like you and father used to wear, Beau, before you both came home from the crusades, only there was a red cross on their mantles.”

“Templars,” Beau muttered.

Henry nodded. “Thought so,” he said. “I heard them before I saw them. So did the Norman, I suppose and that’s why he left. They come out from the trees on the far side of the grove. They were talking but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I moved a bit closer so I could see what they were about.” Henry hesitated when he saw Rae frown.

“They couldn’t see me. The willows are too thick there,” he reassured them, then hurried on when Rae’s frown deepened. “Anyway, I could hear them properly then. They were saying that you and Beau were further up the river but they didn’t know where I was.”

“Why didn’t you shout out to us?” Rae demanded.

Henry drew himself up a little straighter. “Because you were in the river and they were between you and me,” he said. “I feared they were up to no good and would catch me if I made too much noise so I just kept watch to see what they were doing there. I saw them steal Rae’s satchel off Star and leave, so I followed them.”

“You what!” Rae didn’t know whether to be outraged at Henry’s dangerous behaviour or to admire his nephew’s audacity. Beau still looked amused.

“Followed them,” Henry repeated, unrepentant. “All the way here to Oxford, but then I lost sight of them because of the fair. It was getting late but I’ve heard father talk of this inn, so I came here.”

“What exactly did you think you were about?” Rae asked him. “You should have waited by the river until they left, then called out to us!”

For the first time Henry seemed uncertain, some of his bravado falling away, and he shuffled his feet.

“I know,” he said. “But they were taking your satchel and I thought I could follow them and tell you where they went, I thought you would follow. But when we got here to Oxford I didn’t know where you were or if you were coming after us or not. Then when the thieves disappeared into the crowed and I couldn’t find them again I thought to go to St Frideswide’s, as father wanted. But I didn’t want to go there without you and I know you had something important in your satchel and it was from father for the friars and I hadn’t been able to stop the thieves or see where they went. And I really wasn’t sure what to do.”

The words tumbled out in a breathless and confused rush and for the first time Henry looked the lost and repentant little boy he actually was. “I’m sorry, Rae, that I’ve done the wrong thing,” he finished.

Rae sighed, his irritation at the lad dissipating under the weight of Henry’s woebegone expression.

“Well, it’s been done now,” he said pragmatically, shouldering the packs again. “We have found you and you are safe. And as you have the only room available in the inn we might as well make use of it.”

They took the packs up to the room and Rae paid Ansel for another night’s accommodation, grumbling at the extra two shillings the man demanded. The room was set at the back of the inn, on the upper floor and was basic but provided a sagging bedstead with a proper flock mattress, an armoire and a rickety table with a ceramic bowl and pitcher of water. Rae gratefully dropped the packs by the side of the bed and sat himself down, watching as Beau poured water into the bowl and proceeded to wash. Henry hovered, fidgeting with the tasselled ends of his tunic’s cord belt.

“Sit down, boy. You’re not in trouble. Well, not much,” Rae said, then switched his attention to Beau as Henry did as he was told and perched himself beside Rae. “We have to decide our action to find these men and the scroll.”

“Henry, tell us everything the men said and did while you were watching,” Beau said, his voice muffled by the rag he was using to dry his face.

Henry sat as if gathering his thoughts then began.

“As I said, I’d come out of the water and was scouting about on the bank, in amongst the willows, looking for river stones, the flat ones, you know? Those that are good for skipping stones?” He looked at them both for confirmation. Beau nodded solemnly and Rae gave him a nudge. Gaining confidence Henry continued, turning to Rae.

“It was the horses that alerted me to their presence. Tonnaire and Star were both restless and snickering so I looked up and saw the Norman, then the Templars. Once I came within earshot of the Templars I could hear them quite clearly. They talked of finding you both further up the river then had much to say about the long trail they had been following and how much of a merry dance they’d been led.” Henry told them.

“Did they refer to us by name?” Beau interrupted.

“No, not you or Rae; it was always ‘the Saxon’ or ‘the Frenchman’; I was the ‘de Coudrai brat’.” Henry’s voice dripped disdain.

Beau nodded for him to carry on.

“They didn’t appear too concerned about where I was; they were more worried about you two. That was when they talked about the scroll and how the Saxon had it and they took Rae’s satchel off Star. They didn’t tarry after that. I got my clothes on and took Fleur to follow them. They were at the road by then and I kept after them until we got here to Oxford, then I lost them in the crowd.”

“So,” Beau said, pensive. “They knew who we are and what we were carrying.”

Rae thought about that for a moment. “How?” he asked. “They could have followed us from the castle but that doesn’t explain why or how they knew we carried the scroll.”

“It would seem more likely it is the scroll rather than us they followed. But I agree, how did they know? Someone passed them the information that it had changed hands.”

“You think these knights have been on the trail of the scroll since Ulric … acquired it? That they are out to retrieve it for the merchant he took it from?” Rae questioned.

“Either that, or they want it for themselves. Knowing the Templars, that might be the more likely.”

Rae let that conclusion run through his mind. “It would seem that this scroll is of importance to more than Ulric, Giles and the friars.”

Beau nodded. “And more widely known of than expected. Which puts us quite neatly in the middle,” he said, a slight edge to his voice.

Rae turned back to Henry. “Can you remember anything else?” he asked Henry.

The boy screwed his eyes up in concentration before answering. “One of the knights kept complaining about toothache and how he’d have to see a barber for a cure. The other one told him he should stop eating sweetmeats.”

“What do you think?” Rae asked, turning his attention back to Beau.

“I think they came to Oxford for a reason but by now they’ve gone to ground and it won’t be easy to dig them out.” Beau rubbed a hand over his stubbled chin. “I also think it’s time these whiskers were disposed of,” he said.

“A visit to the barber might not go amiss,” Rae agreed, rubbing at his own be-whiskered chin. “But I’ll leave that for you. As Henry is so well appointed it is only fit that I take him to the fair.”

“I might be well dressed, uncle,” Henry agreed brushing an imaginary speck from the shoulder of his tunic before looking over Rae’s travel and sleep rumpled state then switching his gaze to Beau’s equally ruffled appearance, a wicked gleam in his eye. “But I cannot say the same of either of you.”

“We did not spend the night in such salubrious surroundings as you,” Rae said, giving the insolent lad a cuff on the back of his head, which Henry ducked quite efficiently as though used to the action, before rising to take his turn at the washbasin.

“’Tis passing strange you had clean clothes to don, yet we carried your baggage on the packhorse,” Beau added

Henry grinned at them. “I wished to make a good impression on the Friars and made arrangements accordingly. I had these clothes in my saddle pack.”

Rae dipped his head in acknowledgement of the lad’s ingenuity, something that had been displayed in full with his retelling of his adventures. He might not like what his nephew had done, but he couldn’t help the pride he felt at the lad’s initiative, and the acknowledgement that he was so like his father.

“Well, fashionably dressed or not, Henry, you and I will trawl the fair in hopes of spotting our men while Beau sees what he can find out from the quack,” he said, attacking the washbasin with a distinct sense of purpose.

“But first,” Beau said throwing Rae the scrap of cloth he’d used to dry himself with. “We sample what this fair has to offer.”

~~~

The fair was filled with people in all manner of dress and station, the nobility and the gentry mingling with merchants, vassals and the common serf. A cacophony of noise filled the air as minstrels and singers vied with vendors shouting their wares while the scent of foreign spices and cooking meat hung heavy and cloying over the crowd. Carts turned into stalls were loaded with goods, from cloth and jewellery to foodstuffs and gewgaws that Rae was hard pressed to discern a purpose for.

They followed the scent of game pie to a stall at the edge of the grounds and feasted, washing down the meat and sauces with ale from yet another stall, letting the sights and sounds of the fair wash over them.

“It won’t be easy to find our quarry in all this,” Rae said, sipping his ale and watching distractedly as Beau licked at the sauce that dribbled down his chin, before flicking his gaze away to find Henry looking at him with amusement. He ignored the boy but could feel the flush of embarrassment bring colour to his face. “It seems the entire shire has come to the fair,” he continued.

“I agree,” Beau said. “But I see no other option. The thieves won’t announce their presence.” He set his empty tankard down and wiped at his mouth, grinning at Rae. “Time I was about my own business, so if you’ll but point me in the right direction.”

Rae nodded towards the main road. “Head east,” he said. “You’ll find the barber halfway down Fish Street.”

“I’ll be as quick as I can, but we should meet here again by the noon bells at the latest.”

Rae nodded his agreement and watched until the crowd swallowed Beau up before turning back to his nephew. There was an air of excitement about the lad as his gaze followed a pair of jugglers passing through the crowd, golden balls flying from expert hands. The jugglers came closer and Henry flipped one a coin which was caught with barely a pause in rhythm. The second pulled the face of a grotesque and aimed a kick at his companion’s backside. Henry laughed, tossing another coin at the disgruntled jester.

“You’ll soon run out of coin if you spend it on every trickster you come across,” Rae warned him.

Henry grinned at him and shrugged. “I don’t think there will be much for me to spend it on in the priory, when I get there,” he said. “Besides, I liked them; they amuse me.”

Rae slung his arm about the lad’s shoulders. “Come on then; let’s see what else you can find to amuse and delight while we hunt out those we seek.”

They wandered the fair, pausing to watch the acrobats and rope dancers or look at the goods being offered on the stalls. Henry purchased two brightly coloured scarves, one for his mother the other for his aunt, from a trader from the East, while Rae paused by a silversmith’s cart and studied the jewellery and trinkets displayed. They were of good quality and beautifully made, but Rae passed them over until he finally found what he wanted half hidden under some bracelets - an intricately wrought and patterned torc. He picked it up, running his finger over the carved horsehead edges while the silversmith watched.

“Tis a fine piece; you have an eye for beauty.” the man said, no doubt assessing the value of the jewellery against the appearance of the potential purchaser before he began his bargaining.

“It is,” Rae agreed and they haggled for a while until both agreed on a price. Rae tucked his purchase into his shirt and they moved on.

By late morning they had covered the entire fair but found nothing. Rae was beginning to despair that their gambit of spotting their quarry in the crowd would pay off and hoped that Beau was having more luck.

They drifted, finally, to where an area had been roped off for wrestling competitions. A bout had just started, the two bare-chested men coming together in a clash of bodies, each trying to down the other, straining for purchase on the slippery churned up mud. The bout was quick and dirty, the much larger of the pair managing to throw the smaller man and hold him to the ground until he signalled his submission. The winner rose to the cheers of the spectators shouting his victory as he collected his winning bets and demanded more challengers.

Rae felt Henry stiffen beside him as a man stepped out of the crowd and over the rope barrier to accept the challenge. He was bigger even than the bout winner, his shoulders stretching the material of his tunic.

“That’s him,” Henry said, pulling on Rae’s arm. “The Norman I saw at the river, the one who was by the oak tree.”

Rae watched as the man stripped to the waist, excitement churning in his belly with the hope that they were at last getting somewhere.

“You’re sure,” he asked.

“That’s him all right, I’d recognise him anywhere,” Henry assured his uncle.

The man was certainly distinctive enough, the shaven nape of his head and the long fringe across his forehead marking him out as a Norman, his size distinguishing him even more.

The two men circled each other warily. They were evenly matched in height if not in weight but if Rae had to put his coin on one of them he would back the Norman; the man had the look of someone who was no stranger to a battlefield or hand-to-hand fighting.

“What are we going to do, Rae?” Henry asked.

“Watch, then when they finish we follow our man,” Rae told him. “He was at the river for a reason and with any luck we might yet find out what that reason was.”

The bout was longer than the previous one but not by much. The combatants grappled and broke free then came together again, neither man able to dislodge the other. But as Rae suspected, the Norman was the more experienced contestant and the third time they closed he moved quickly, taking his opponent by surprise and using the man’s own impetus to overbalance him. The man went down with a thud.

The Norman stood back and it was only as his defeated foe was getting to his feet that Rae realised the two knew each other.

“I’ll best you yet, Guustave,” the man said, bending with his hands on his knees, trying to regain the wind that had been knocked out of him.

“But not today, Ealdwine,” the Norman, Guustave, said laughing and clapping his opponent on the shoulder. “Perhaps at the next fair I will give you one more chance to eat mud.”

Ealdwine straightened and cursed, knocking Guustave’s hand away. Ignoring the Norman he called for another challenger.

Guustave, still grinning, donned his shirt and collected the money from the bets placed against him then walked away whistling. Rae waited until he was nearly out of sight before nudging Henry and they hastened after.

They followed the Norman as he wound his way through the fair, gradually getting closer to the priory. He didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry and stopped often to watch the tricksters or listen to the minstrels play their harps and tabors. Eventually Guustave reached the corner of the priory and after a quick look round disappeared along the side of the building. Rae and Henry waited a few seconds then hastened after and were in time to see him pass through a postern in the city wall that ran along the back of the priory.

Rae hesitated, then turned to his nephew and laid a hand on his arm. “Henry, return to the fair and wait for Beau at the stall where we ate this morning. He was to be there by the noon church bells” he reminded, looking up to check the sun’s position in the sky. “Which should not be long in coming.”

Henry pulled free and took a step back, his face a mix of disappointment and chagrin. “But why must I go and leave you on your own? You might rather need my help than have me standing idle by the pie stall.”

“Because you will be of no real use to me here, boy,” Rae told him, and blanched at the hurt in the lad’s eyes, but he wouldn’t, couldn’t put Henry in danger. “Now hurry. Go and wait for Beau,” he finished keeping his voice stern and uncompromising.

Henry gave him a look of betrayal as he turned back towards the fair. Rae watched him go before stepping through the narrow arched opening in the wall, and straight into a blow to the head that sent him to his knees then into utter darkness.

~~~

Beau followed Rae’s directions and found his way to Fish Street and Oxford’s only barber shop, wedged between an apothecary and a cloth merchant and easily identified by a bowl of blood, a signature of the surgeon’s bloodletting expertise, on display in the window. He hovered outside for a moment, trying to see in but the view through the narrow arches showed him only vague outlines and shadows. He stepped inside.

The shop was small and low roofed. Benches had been set against one wall with bowls and various instruments laid out on them, and stools lined the other wall. A large wooden chair occupied the centre of the otherwise empty room, a table beside it piled with what looked like clean cloths and a bowl of water. Beau hovered uncertainly by the doorway, about to leave, when a curtain leading to the back of the shop was pulled abruptly open and the round cheery figure of a man bustled through.

“Oh dear, I expected no custom at this hour with the fair occupying the town and had retreated for my repast. But here I have a customer who has been kept needlessly waiting. I do apologise, sir.”

“Not at all,” Beau started to say but was abruptly silenced as the man carried on in almost the same breath while pulling down a coverall from a hook on the wall and tugging it on.

“What can I do for you today, young sir?” he said, bustling Beau to the chair and all but pushing him onto it. “A bloodletting perhaps? Or might you require a tonsure? Although I must say with your head of hair it might be a pity to shave half of it off.”

“Just my face, barber,” Beau told him hastily, settling himself into the chair, shifting uncomfortably on the hard wood.

“Yes, yes, of course. One must be nicely shaved to please the fair maidens, mustn’t one?”

The barber fluttered a cloth under Beau’s chin and hastened to retrieve a thin bladed razor from one of the benches.

“This should do quite nicely,” he said, returning to Beau’s side. He moistened Beau’s face with some water from the bowel set on the table and dipped in his blade and set to work. “Are you here for the fair, sir? I am sure I have not seen your face in my establishment before.”

“This is the first time I have visited Oxford ,” Beau told him, neither confirming nor denying his business in the town and tried not to move his jaw too much as the blade scraped down his cheek, grateful that the barber kept his blade sharp.

“I thought as much. I never forget a face, especially the ones I shave,” the barber laughed jovially and mopped up a small amount of blood from Beau’s chin with the cloth draped around his neck.

“You’ve had many strangers come to you for attention of late?” Beau asked cautiously.

“Oh yes. The fair brings people to Oxford from all over the county, even from London and further afield. The St Frideswide fair is very famous you know,” the barber told him with some pride in his voice. “Why this very day I have bled a noble lady from Mercia to rid her from the humors and just …”

Beau let the man ramble on as he shaved him, keeping a close ear out for anything of value in the barber’s stream of words. He heard much of the history of Oxford and the fair but was near to despair at there being anything relevant being offered when the sound of footsteps finally halted the flow. The barber hesitated in his shaving and looked up.

“I will be but a moment, Sir Knight. Please be seated.”

There was a grunt and the sound of shuffling feet accompanied by the squeaking from one of the stools then silence. Beau resisted the temptation to move his head to look at the newcomer, mainly because the barber was currently sweeping his blade dangerously close to Beau’s Adam’s apple.

Finally the barber passed his blade over Beau’s cheek one last time and stepped back to admire his handiwork before slapping a generous portion of liquid around his face, the sting of which made Beau wish he hadn’t

“A little lavender water to ease the burn,” the barber assured, removing the bloodstained cloth from Beau’s neck. He risked a glance at the newcomer, a woebegone figure seated slumped over with his elbows on his knees, eyes on the ground and holding his left cheek in his hands. He was dressed as a knight, the red cross on the mantle identifying him as a Templar.

Hardly believing how his luck had changed for the better Beau quickly paid the barber, keeping his back to the recumbent knight, and left the shop, the echo of the barber’s exclamation at the state of the Templar’s tooth echoing in his ears

Beau took up position next to the fishmongers on the opposite side of the narrow street. He winced in sympathy at the grunts and groans coming clearly to him from the barber shop and debated his next actions. He could leave now, try and find Rae and trust they would be back before the Templar’s tooth was extracted and he left. That seemed unlikely and would lose them their man altogether. Confronting the knight and demanding return of the scroll seemed equally as unlikely as a course of action. Beau had dealt with the touchy Templars before and knew that while they were holy and virtuous they were also stubborn to a fault and dangerous when roused. He’d get nothing from the man and could end up with his arse being presented to him on a platter. No, the best option was to wait and follow and hope to be led to the scroll. After that? Well he’d see what kind of odds he was up against.

It wasn’t a long wait in the end and the Templar exited the barbers with a puffed up cheek and a pained looked on his face not many moments later. Beau waited, concealed behind a barrel of salted fish, as the man hurried past.

The narrow streets the Templar led Beau through were quiet after the busy atmosphere of the fair. There were few people aboard and Beau was careful to keep a distance between them. But the knight seemed unconcerned and hurried on his way with pauses only to spit blood onto the side of the road. They seemed to be skirting the fair itself, judging by the sounds of merriment that were tantalisingly near yet blocked from view by houses and shops. Eventually they reached the city wall and passed through the south gate by St Michael’s church. Once in the open marshy meadowland the Templar diverted from the main road and onto a path that meandered through the settlement of timber and wattle-and-daub houses outside the town walls and down to the millstream. Beau followed at a distance and watched as the man made his way to a stone built water mill straddling the stream and set in a small grove surrounded by willows and high standing bushes, its huge wheel still and silent, waiting for the corn it would grind to flour.

There were horses visible in the shelter of the trees, four of them - two large war horses and two smaller animals, used no doubt as pack horses - their tails flicking and hooves stamping in restless motion. One snickered as the man passed, but he paid no heed, going to the door of the mill and entering with a look neither to left nor right.

Beau waited a heartbeat then eased forward, using the concealment of the trees to approach the mill without being seen. There was a window on the side of the building and he made for that, the sound of voices coming clearly through the opening. He hunched down beneath the window and listened. There appeared to be an argument of sorts taking place.

“We should be on our way to London already, Eustice. Our instructions were to complete our task and meet with him at the Temple in London. He would be there no doubt by now. ‘Tis you and your cursed tooth, that has caused this delay,” a voice accused.

“Oh stop your complaints, Hugh. We have the scroll and were not pursued after the taking of it. All is well, he’ll wait, and be happy for it so long as we have been successful, and that we have been,” came the response.

“I say we should be on our way instead of idling here.”

There was a grunt and a scraping noise and the same voice continued. “The morrow is soon enough. Here, eat. I have brought us food from the fair.”

“Not sweetmeats, I’ll wager.”

There was a laugh and a mutter that Beau couldn’t catch then silence. Even from that distance Beau could hear the bells of the churches of Oxford as they peeled out the midday hour. Content with what he’d heard he moved away from the window. He had names now, not that that did him much good, but he knew where to find both Templars and the missing scroll. What he wanted more was the identity of the mysterious Leader.

In the meantime he must find Rae.

~~~

Henry de Coudrai was very annoyed with his uncle Rae and was determined to let show how much his words had stung. He cared deeply for Rae, probably more than he sometimes let it be known. His uncle had looked after him and his siblings, and his mother, when Henry’s father had gone off to fight in the crusades and had never begrudged time spent with an, admittedly, pestering and sometimes (well perhaps more than sometimes) ill-behaved young nephew. But that was when he was but a child and now Henry was a man grown and more than capable of facing danger by his uncle’s side. It was he after all who had followed the Knights Templar to Oxford and discovered the clues that could lead them to the missing scroll. It was unfair, an injustice even, that Rae should now consider him useless.

But Rae just ignored his look and stuttered objections and insisted that Henry should leave. Henry held his temper and dutifully turned away from his uncle, making his way to the corner of the priory without looking back. Once he was out of Rae’s sight he stopped, leaning against the cold stone of the priory wall, and waited, counting slowly. When he reached ten he peeped cautiously around the corner. There was no sign of Rae.

Henry hurried to the postern gate and stepped through. It was green and open on the other side of the town wall with scattered farmsteads and a church in the distance, its high tower standing stark against the sky. There were a few cattle grazing in the fields but the area looked otherwise deserted, apart that is from the Norman who was in the process of entering an abandoned Saxon barn on the other side of the meadow, the slack body of Rae slung across his shoulder.

Henry watched as both Guustave and Rae disappeared into the dark depths of the barn and wondered what he should do, but the need to prove Rae wrong drove him on; Rae was unconscious at the least, injured at the worst and Beau, wherever he might be, was too far away to be of any help. He was on his own.

The noonday bells were just starting to toll as Henry made his cautious way to side of the barn. The building had been left to rot, its slopped roof showing holes in the thatch and the walls had gaps where the daub had worn and fallen off, exposing the wattle underneath. He paused, listening but there was no sound coming from inside. He tried peering through the daub but the wattle, although tattered and broken in places, gave no clear vision inside. A pile of thatch had fallen from the roof and now formed a high mound that sloped down the wall. It was overgrown with long grass that poked up around and through the straw and reed remnants and that seemed to be holding it all together. Where the roof thatch had been there was now a gap.

Henry scrambled up the sloping thatch and by standing on tiptoe was able to see inside. There were patterns of darkness and bright light inside the barn confusing Henry’s vision at first but gradually his eyes adjusted and he could make out shapes within the shadows. Rae was sitting in the piles of loose straw that covered the floor, his back against the wall. His hands were behind him, as though tied. The Norman sat not far away, on the rickety remains of a broken stool. He had Rae’s sword in his hands, the one that Henry knew Beau had given him. He was examining it closely.

“’Tis a fine weapon, this one.” Guustave was saying. “A knight’s sword if I’m not mistaken, not one for a Saxon peasant.”

Rae was staring hard at the Norman but said nothing.

“How would a Saxon peasant come by such a thing?” Guustave continued. “Stolen perhaps? Or given in exchange for some special service?”

“How I came by my sword is none of your concern,” Rae responded.

Guustave ignored the comment and stroked the blade in appreciation. “Perhaps you and I should discuss this matter in more detail, Saxon. There are things I would know, one of them being why you were following me.”

Rae started to reply just as Henry moved his feet, trying to lift himself a little higher and see more of the inside of the barn. There was a subtle shift in the mound as part of the old thatch moved under his weight. He reached out, grabbing for the wall edge but missed, his footing giving way as that part of the mound collapsed and sent him tumbling down to the ground with a startled cry.

There was a loud exclamation from the barn as Henry got to his feet, retrieving the bonnet that had come off in the fall and brushing himself down. It was the sound of footsteps that soon set him off to running though. Shouts followed him as he tore over the meadow and he thought he heard someone calling his name but it might have been the wind and he dared not stop.

He ran in what he thought was the direction of the city wall, but realised moments later that his path instead was parallel to it. He swerved, which cost him time, and he could almost feel the breath of his pursuer on his neck when he slammed into a solid object that brought his mad dash to an abrupt end.

He staggered but strong hands held him steady and pulled him to the side. He looked up and grinned to see Beau staring at him, consternation and confusion on his face.

“Henry, are you alright,” Beau demanded, his hands on Henry’s shoulders still, his eye on the Norman, who had doubled over and was trying to catch his breath.

Henry nodded, his own breaths coming in pants. “That’s the Norman I saw at the river,” he gasped. “The one that was there before the Templars stole the scroll. He was chasing me.”

Beau’s face hardened. “So I could see. Where’s Rae?”

Henry swung his glare to the Norman. “He took him, Beau. He must have knocked Rae out, I saw him carry him to that barn over there. Then he started chasing me when I found them.”

Beau’s gaze turned towards the barn before returning to Guustave, who had caught his breath by now and was looking at Beau speculatively.

“Did he now,” Beau said, releasing his grip on Henry and taking a step towards the Norman, who stood his ground.

“The boy has it wrong,” Guustave started to say. But Beau didn’t appear to be in the mood for conversation as his fist connected in a solid blow to the Norman’s chin. Guustave went down, but he didn’t stay there.

Henry moved out of the way as Guustave regained his feet. Beau waited for him, relaxed and indolent, indifferent almost. Henry wasn’t deceived. He’d seen Beau in wrestling bouts before and knew better than to take that stance at face value.

The Norman grinned, spitting blood to the side and wiping his mouth. “So, you want to fight, Frenchman?” he sneered and crouched into a wrestler’s stance. “Come, I will give you a lesson you will not forget.”

Beau’s grin was like the one Henry had seen on a cat after it had scooped the cream from the top of the milk barrel. “T’will perhaps be you, Norman, who has the lesson,” he said, undoing the buckle of his sword belt and handing both belt and sword to Henry.

The two men circled each other warily. Henry wished he could have warned Beau of what he had seen of Guustave’s fighting prowess but it was too late now. But for all his confident attitude Henry knew that Beau would not be foolish enough to underestimate the Norman, who was both the taller and heavier of the two. It was Guustave who moved first, rushing in to grasp at Beau’s biceps but Beau moved just as quickly, throwing Guustave’s arms off and pushing him back. Guustave cocked his head slightly and regarded Beau quizzically before advancing again. Beau met him full on and they grappled, each seeking a hold, pushing backwards and forwards until Guustave ducked and twisted for a body throw but Beau was too quick and dropping down gripped onto Guustave’s thigh, sending him tumbling onto his back.

They engaged again and this time it was Beau who was sent flying when Guustave managed a grip on the back of his tunic and into a throw that had Beau doing a somersault. After that it was an even match, each arm lock being broken, each headlock countered. Finally they parted and circled. Both were sweating, the sounds of the fair a distant background noise to their heaving breaths. Henry, tired now of the spectacle and not at all sure that Beau would be the eventual victor, came up behind Guustave and swung the flat of Beau’s sword at his head. The Norman went down with a crash.

“What did you do that for?” Beau demanded. He was swaying slightly and sweat beaded his forehead.

Henry looked him up and down, “Because I was getting bored,” he said, handing Beau’s sword back to him. “And I thought Rae might like to get cut loose from his bonds before night falls.”

Beau grinned at him. “In all truth you are your father’s son,” he said as wiped a hand across his brow then buckled on his sword again. “Sir Giles is not one to contain his sarcasm on occasion.” Henry took Beau’s words as the compliment he was sure it was meant to be and returned the grin.

“You say Rae is in that barn?” Beau continued, waiting for Henry’s nod of confirmation. “Then we had best retrieve him.”

“What about him?” Henry asked nodding towards the unconscious Guustave.

“I think as he has taken your uncle prisoner it would be only right of us to return the favour.”

Between them they hefted the Norman and hastened to the barn. Rae, hands still tied behind his back, had managed to roll himself almost to the doorway and they all but tripped over him as they blundered in with their burden.

“What took you so long,” he demanded as Beau attended to his bonds, cutting the rope with the tip of his sword.

“Ah, there’s gratitude for you,” Beau countered. “I fight this lump of offal for you and all I get is harsh words. I am deeply wounded.”

Henry wasn’t going to let that pass without adding his own contribution. “I was the one who knocked him out,” he reminded Beau.

Rae looked at them both and just shook his head. “There is a tale there for you to tell me later and no doubt it will be a tall one. As for you,” he said, looking sternly at Henry. “I thought I told you to wait for Beau by the pie stall.”

“And if I had done as you said then I would still be there and you would still be tied up in this barn with this Norman for company and no one the wiser for it,” Henry retorted, dander well up now.

“I think he has a point Rae,” Beau broke in soothingly.

“Perhaps,” Rae conceded. “In this instance I’m grateful for your disobedience. Henry. But don’t do it again.” The admonishment was countered by the grin he wore.

Henry subsided, mollified by both concession and gratitude.

“But we have no time for this now,” Rea continued. “We still have a scroll to retrieve and this man might have the knowledge we need.”

Beau shook his head, “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ve found the Templars not far from here.” He looked at the Norman speculatively, “What part this one is playing in all this seems a mystery, unless he told you something?”

“Nothing of any value,” Rae said, retrieving his sword from where Guustave had dropped it when he gave chase after Henry. He fixed the sword back in his belt, throwing a scornful look at the Norman as he did so. Then Henry saw concerned that turned to consternation on Rae’s face as his hand went to the top of his tunic. He watched, curious, as Rae hastened to where he’d been lying bound in the straw and began a frantic search.

It seemed Beau was just as puzzled. “Rae, whatever are you searching for?” he said, kneeling down beside Rae and running his hands over the straw as if the mysterious lost object would magically appear at his command. Henry hastened to join the search, although he was as mystified as Beau.

“It’s something – ah!” Rae began as his hands ploughed deep into the straw then stopped as they found what they were seeking. Rae wiped at the object he’d retrieved, brushing off the bits of straw that clung stubbornly.

“I bought it at the fair,” he said. “For you.”

He held an object out to Beau that glittered in the shaft of sunlight streaming through the missing roof thatch and Henry realised it was the torc he’d seen Rae purchase at the fair.

“You gave me your sword as a morning gift,” Rae said. “But I had nothing for you that was as precious.”

Beau took the torc and studied it for a moment before pulling apart the ends and slipping it around his neck then tightening it again. “It’s beautiful, Rae. Thank you,” he said, meeting Rae’s eyes with a gentleness Henry had not seen before in the knight

There was a long silence that made Henry fell hot and itchy so he coughed and rolled his eyes at them and was rewarded with flushes of embarrassment from them both. But he tucked away the memory of what they had shared and hoped that someday someone would look at him the way Rae and Beau had looked at each other in that one pure moment.

Order restored, Rae got to his feet and Beau followed suit. “You said you’d found the Templars,” he said to Beau.

“I have,” Beau confirmed. “My visit to the barber gave me more than a decent shave. The one with the sore tooth showed himself and I followed him to a mill not far from here.”

“Then we have them,” Rae said, pleased at the information.

“Yes, but we must go quickly in case they decide to leave rather than wait until morning.”

“What about him?” Henry asked nodding towards the Norman who was beginning to stir.

“We keep him here for now and find out later what part he plays in this?” Beau asked looking at Rae, who nodded agreement.

Beau bent to retrieve the ropes that had bound Rae and used them on Guustave, tying his hands behind him quickly and efficiently. By the time he’d finished the Norman was regaining consciousness.

He looked dazedly around and spotted Beau, then Henry. He frowned at the boy then returned his gaze to Beau. “We must fight again, Frenchman, you and I, without the boy interfering this time. There is still a lesson I must teach you,” he said, the words slurred as he struggled with his bonds.

Rae looked at Beau quizzically. “I’ll explain later,” Beau told him. “Let’s go.”

Decision made they hastened to the door and stepped out into the fresh air again, Guustave’s voice following them. “No, wait, Saxon. You are making a mistake. I must tell you …” But they ignored the shouted words.

~~~

 

                                                                   

 

The afternoon warmth sent midges dancing around their heads as Beau led the way across the slightly marshy meadowland to the mill, explaining as they went how he’d followed the Templar from the barber’s shop and the overheard conversation.

They approached cautiously using the cover of trees and crouched by an outcropping of gorse bushes. Nothing appeared to have changed since Beau had left to go in search of Rae and Henry, the horses were still grazing contentedly under the shelter of the trees and the only sounds disturbing the peaceful scene were the soft buzz of insects and the croak of a frog.

“How do you want to do this?” Beau asked.

Rae thought for a moment, considering the situation. “We could knock on the door and ask that they return my pack and the scroll, but I do not think they would be of a mind to agree peacefully to that suggestion,” he said.

“I agree.” Beau said, grinning. “And from the conversation I overhead they expect to spend the night here and leave for London on the morrow so by now they are nicely settled in there and not likely to move for some time.”

“Then we must do something to draw them out,” Rae decided.

Beau nodded. “That should not prove too difficult, a commotion of some sort would work and once they are outside we can take them. We are evenly matched and the element of surprise will be in our favour.”

Rae wasn’t as sure about being the equal of a battle hardened Templar knight, but appreciated Beau’s confidence in him. “Taking them down wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” he said. “Just keeping them busy should suffice.”

Beau gave him a puzzled look.

“You and I, Beau, do as we did with that band of Saxon renegades we routed last summer, we loose their horses, only we make as much noise doing it as we can. That should bring them out of the mill.”

“They will fight,”

“Of course, and we will fight back, but retrieving their horses might be the first thing on their minds.”

Henry shuffled and huffed, drawing Rae’s attention. “What about me?” he demanded. “I’m not being left out again.”

Rae grinned at him. “Don’t take on so Henry, I have a special task for you. See that window to the side of the mill?” he asked, then carried on when Henry nodded. “As soon as we draw the Templars out you will slip in through it and seek out my satchel and the scroll. Once you have them you signal us and then run as fast as you can back the way of the fair. Think you can do that, lad?”

“Of course I can.” The boy flashed a brilliant smile at his uncle.

“Good. When we know you have the scroll we can withdraw from the fray in, hopefully, good order and meet up with you at the inn.” Rae looked at Beau, seeking his approval of the plan. If he had any doubts Beau didn’t voice them, just lifted his eyebrows and reached for his sword. Rae had several misgivings himself but if they could distract the Templars long enough for Henry to get the scroll and escape, a fight, uneven or not, would be worth it.

It was a matter of moments for Henry to make his way to the side of the mill where the window looked out upon the millstream and crouch down amongst the reeds that grew from the water’s edge. Rae waited until the boy waved that he was ready, then both he and Beau sprinted across the open ground and to the shelter of trees where the horses were tethered. The mounts stirred restlessly at the approach of strangers, whinnying and stamping in agitation.

“Ready?” Rae asked.

“As ever I will be,” Beau told him, sweeping his sword down and through the rope that bound the horses to a tree branch, cutting them free. Rae took care of the rope line that was strung between them. One of the horses, a bay mare, reared up with hooves pawing at the air but Beau dodged expertly and the horse dropped down then seemed to realise it was free and danced back a few steps before whirling about and setting off across the open ground at a gallop. The other horses milled, disturbed and unsure until Rae gave one of the warhorses a sharp slap on the rump and it leapt away. The last two followed, their loud whinnying accompanied by shouts from Rae and Beau as they chased after, waving their arms.

The reaction from the mill was almost immediate as the door was flung open to shouts and loud exclamations. If Rae had been hoping the commotion would bring the Templars out unarmed he was doomed to disappointment as they were both carrying their swords.

“What the devil are you about,” one of them shouted. From the descriptions Beau had given him Rae thought the man to be Sir Eustice of the bad tooth, which would make the other one Sir Hugh.

Hugh was a little quicker on the uptake. “It’s that Saxon and the Frenchman,” he warned. “They’ve come for the scroll no doubt.”

“Well, they’ll not have it!” Eustice declared, raising his sword and heading determinedly towards Rae who had just enough time to draw his own sword and glimpse Henry climbing through the mill window before the man was upon them.

The clash of metal upon metal was loud in the small grove as they fought. Rae’s adversary was every bit as battled hardened as he had expected, a far different prospect than the Saxon raiders he’d fought before, but Giles had been a good teacher and Rae was able to hold his own. He had no chance to see how Beau was faring in his fight with Sir Hugh, only hear the grunts and curses coming from that direction and catch a flash of sunlight glancing off a steel blade from the corner of his eye. Putting concern for his lover from his mind he concentrated on his own defence. There was no finesse in the fighting, just the cut and thrust of heavy swords coming together, seeking an opening in which to disarm or injure.

The battle moved further from the mill and closer to the stream but for how long they fought Rae wasn’t sure. His arms and hands were tiring badly when a well-aimed blow sent his sword spinning from his grip. He ducked the expected follow up aimed at his head and rolled, fingers scrabbling desperately for his fallen weapon and finding the hilt. He brought the blade up just in time, feeling the impact of the Templar’s next blow transmit through steel and down his arms. He rolled again, before Sir Hugh could strike once more, and gained his feet ready to engage. But the Templar had stopped and was staring towards the mill and Rae saw that Beau and Eustice were likewise momentarily transfixed at the sight of Henry running pell-mell across the field, Rae’s satchel dangling from his shoulder and a man on horseback chasing after him. It was the destrier Rae recognised first, then the rider and all the pieces suddenly fell into place.

Beau was as quick. “You!” he shouted at the man. Ulric de Charney glanced up, a cold malicious look on his face, before he turned his attention back to the pursuit of young Henry, urging his mount to greater effort as he drew closer to the boy. The lad, still running, grappled with the satchel for a moment then turned and flung it at his pursuer. The destrier faltered into a sidestepping jump that almost dislodged its rider as the satchel sailed towards its head. Henry dodged around the flailing hooves and gained some space between him and his pursuer. Rae could see the scroll clutched in his fist. Ulric, realising that Henry still had the scroll, flung himself from his still prancing horse and gave chase on foot, closing in rapidly. Forgetting his opponent Rae started to move to intercept pursued and pursuer, but Beau was closer. Seeing him, Henry threw the scroll just as Ulric reached out and grabbed hold of the boy.

It sailed high through the air and Beau dropped his sword and backed up ready to make a catch but he stepped back too far and overbalanced on the edge of the millstream, teetered for a moment then fell back into the water. Rae blanched at the inevitability of the scroll being lost to the depredations of the millstream as it descended from its arc, but just as it was about to touch the water a hand came up from the stream’s turgid depths and clasped it. Beau emerged as if a leviathan from the deep holding the scroll high and walked towards the stream’s edge water cascading in rivulets down from his clothes.

There was silence, broken only the sounds of rushing water, until Ulric finally spoke

“Get the scroll, Eustice,” he ordered holding the struggling Henry against his chest, one arm wrapped firmly around the boy’s body. “Hugh, stop muddling about and take care of that meddlesome Saxon.”

Hugh raised his sword with determination, his intent clear. Rae turned to meet the challenge with equal determination, preparing himself again for battle. Beau made a lunge for his own sword.

A voice cracked out, stilling them all. “Enough! You will all cease this unseemly squabbling immediately.”

Giles de Coudrai sat grim faced on his great horse, Chevalier, his gaze taking them all in one at a time. Beside him was Guustave, his arms crossed, a smile turning up the corners of his mouth.

Rae looked at them both, shocked not only by the sudden appearance of Giles but also the fact that Guustave, who they had left tied up in a barn, was with him and obviously on familiar terms with his brother-in-law. It seemed there were things Giles had not felt fit to confide in either him or Beau. He cast a glance at Beau who was staring at Guustave, an incredulous look on his face that was turning into anger.

“Will someone explain exactly what has occurred here?” Giles continued, dismounting.

Rae started to speak but Ulric beat him to it. “It’s quite simple, Giles,” he said. “I want the scroll. Your man has it. He will therefore hand it over to me and then I will release young Henry here, unharmed and in one piece.”

Giles turned his full attention on the knight. Ulric still had a tight grip on Henry, the glitter of a blade held against the boy’s throat.

“Guustave has told me of the theft of the scroll. Am I to understand that you have been behind that theft?” Giles waited a breath for an answer but Ulric kept his silence, just pulled Henry tighter against his chest when he tried to kick him.

“I trusted you, Ulric,” Giles continued. “You had the precious scroll and willingly relinquished it. Why do you now threaten my son to get it back.

Ulric shrugged. “The scroll is my entry to the grand temple of London and the august company of the Templars. These oafs were to take it from your men quietly and without discovery or fuss, then deliver it accordingly, leaving me and the temple innocent of any subterfuge or perfidy in the matter. Instead they bumbled around the countryside in full view of the peasantry, necessitating my intervention.

Giles turned his gaze to the two Templars who had moved to stand next to each other then returned his attention back to Ulric.

“I see,” he said. “I wouldn’t have taken you for one of the Poor Knights, Ulric, nor willing to betray an old comrade in this manner. I have obviously erred in my judgement.”

Ulric ignored the barb. “Well, Giles, what’s it to be? The scroll or your son?”

Without taking his gaze from Henry Giles addressed himself to Beau. “Give him the scroll, Beau.”

Beau hesitated, but Ulric moved the knife a fraction so that the tip pressed into Henry’s neck. A small trickle of blood ran down to stain the top of Henry’s elaborate tunic. Still dripping water Beau made his way to the tableau, stopping an arm’s length away.

“Let the boy go,” he said, holding the scroll just out of Ulric’s reach.

“Not yet,” Ulric replied. “You, Saxon, drop your sword on the ground and move over to where Sir Giles stands.”

With a hard look at Ulric Rae obeyed.

“Good! Hugh, take Sir Giles’ horse and tie it to that tree yonder.”

Again Ulric was obeyed. When Hugh returned the three knights stood together with their captive facing their opponents, Beau halfway between the two groups.

“Now take the scroll, Eustice,” Ulric commanded. Eustice reached out and Beau, helpless but to obey, released the scroll to him. Ulric gave a short sharp whistle and his destrier lifted its head from where it had been peacefully grazing and galloped to its master. Ulric pushed Henry into Beau’s waiting arms and quickly mounted, holding out his hand for the scroll.

“This will not be forgotten, Ulric,” Giles said as Henry rushed to him. Giles held his son tight to him and hushed the boy’s murmured apologies.

“I don’t believe for one moment that it will Giles. But that is for another day. Hugh, Eustice come. Your horses await you by the postern gate. We ride for London now."

Rae watched Ulric ride away, Hugh and Eustice trotting after him, defeat bitter ashes in his mouth. Guustave, who had remained a silent observer up to then was already on his way to retrieve Giles’ Chevalier from where he had been tethered.

“Are we just going to let him take it?” Beau asked, heat rushing into his face. “Our horses are at the inn and well rested, we could track him down in no time.”

“No, Beau. We will let him be. There has been enough fighting for one day.” Giles remounted and reached his hand down to haul Henry up behind him. “The holy fathers await us at the Priory. I will meet you both there after Beau has had the opportunity to dry himself out and you can tell me the tale of your misadventures. Oh, and bring Henry’s Fleur and the packhorse to the Priory stable.” he added as he too started back towards the town wall. But Rae held him back with a hand on the horses’ tack.

“What about him?” he asked, nodding towards Guustave who had remained an interested observer during the altercation between Giles and Ulric.

“Guustave is my liegeman and faithful servant from my lands in Normandy. He chose to wander rather than settle with me in England. He is here now at my behest. His part in this, and yours, can be explained at the Priory.” His short explanation given Giles turned his horse’s head towards the north followed by the stalwart Guustave.

There was nothing for them to do then but plod a weary trail after their Lord.

~~~

A dark sullen evening had settled by the time Rae and Beau left Fleur and the packhorse safe and content in the stable and made their way to the wooden doors of the priory. The traders had all packed up and gone with no trace remaining, for this had been the last day of the fair and an abandoned silence drifted over the now-empty grounds. They were greeted by a tonsured friar who escorted them through candlelit passages until they reached the cloister and stopped at another wooden door which the friar opened wide then stepped aside to let them pass through.

The calefactory was large and comfortably, if sparsely, appointed. There was a fireplace to one side, merry flames licking at the kindling, and several severe paintings of a suffering Christ along the walls. Chairs and pews were dotted about and a large table occupied the centre. It was covered in parchment and leather bound manuscripts.

Giles and another friar sat by the fire talking while Guustave and Henry crowded at a bench to the side laden with platters of food, the aroma of which tantalised their nostrils and reminded Beau he had not eaten since the early morning. Henry waved a chicken leg in greeting as they entered.

“We were wondering how long it would take you to get here,” he said. “Father said you would waste no time but you’ve been forever.”

“Hush, Henry,” Giles admonished coming to his feet. “Friar Absalom, these are the men we have been waiting for, my castellan and brother-in-law, Raedwolf and Sir Guillaume de Vienne.”

The friar’s beaming smile was genuine and unaffected. “Sir Giles has told me of you,” he said. “And Henry has too of course. He does like to chatter, the dear boy. It will be a pleasure to have such a fine and enquiring young mind as one of our first students here.”

Henry shuffled his feet and Giles hid an approving smile behind a gruff cough.

“Henry has also told us much of what has transpired over the last two days. I am very grateful for all that you have done in saving the precious scroll for our poor priory,” Absalom continued. “We do have a vast collection of holy works and are hoping to make this priory one of the seats of learning within Oxford and the kingdom. The scroll will indeed be a welcome addition.”

Beau felt muddle-headed over the friar’s words. No matter which way he parsed it out they didn’t seem to make sense.

“But, we don’t have the scroll. It was taken by Sir Ulric,” Rae said, a frown creasing his brow.

“Yes, about that,” Giles broke in. “There are some things that I omitted to tell you before you both left on your mission.”

Rae’s eyes narrowed and Beau folded his arms. “You knew that Ulric would betray us,” he said with sudden knowledge.

“Not entirely, Beau. I suspected, that is all and took certain measures to counter that eventuality should it occur.”

“Oh, and exactly what measures would that be,” Rae enquired.

Giles gave him a stern look. “That which I considered adequate at the time,” he said then relented. “But I see I must explain myself.”

Beau moved to the bench that held the food and helped himself to some bread and cheese as Giles settled down in his seat again. Rae came and slouched against the wall next to him and Henry perched himself on one of the couches set against the wall and commenced on another chicken leg. Guustave stayed where he was. They all waited as Giles composed himself.

“This affair started some months ago when I received correspondence from Ulric in which he made much of his acquisition of the scroll. His contact came as somewhat of a surprise as we were not of a particularly close acquaintance. But it seemed Ulric wanted to enlist my help in his desire to entrust this prize of such immense value to the friars at St Frideswide, both for its safety and for study, such being the reputation of the priory in these matters.”

Friar Absalom bowed his head in acknowledgement of the comment and Giles continued.

“I agreed of course. But I was unsure of Ulric’s motives. His reputation is not that of an altruistic collector of religious artefacts. As suspicious as I was, I decided to enlist the services of Guustave, to follow Ulric and report back on his activities after he’d delivered the scroll and left the castle.”

Guustave stepped forward and spoke. “If I may take over the telling of the tale, Sir Giles?” he said and waited for Giles’ nod of assent. “As instructed I waited outside the castle and saw Ulric leave. I followed him to the house of Temple Cowley, where he spent some time then emerged in the company of the two knights you came to know so well.” A comment that made Beau wince.

“They spoke for but a brief time then parted ways; Ulric on the road to London, the knights in the direction of Oxford. My choice was to stay with Ulric or see what business Ulric had given the knights. I chose the knights.

I saw what transpired by the river, the stealing of the scroll and had seen that you were both swimming in the river when the deed was done but had no knowledge of Henry’s presence so close by or that he followed the knights afterwards. As soon as I knew what the knights were about I rode ahead to Oxford and waited for their arrival for it seemed sure that was their destination.”

“You knew they were at the mill all the time?” Rae asked, although it was obvious he knew the truth of it.

Guustave nodded. “I sent word to Sir Giles of what had happened and had been keeping an eye on them, awaiting his arrival, when I saw you behind me at the postern gate.”

“You could have just told me what you were about instead of cracking my skull.”

Guustave shrugged. “Sir Giles instructed me to track the progress of Ulric and the scroll and to watch out for his son if need be. He said nothing of you or the other one. You were following me and the boy was not with you. How was I to know you were not in league with Sir Ulric in the theft?”

“Yes, perhaps I was remiss in not advising you of Guustave’s presence, Raedwolf” Giles interrupted. “But then in truth I did not expect that events would play out as they did nor that Ulric would put Henry’s, and your, lives in danger in such a manner, that things would get as far as they did. I should have given more consideration to his ultimate ruthlessness.”

“You set us a task,” Rae said, hurt-filled eyes regarding his brother-in-law. “We would carry it out no matter what and protect Henry at all costs.”

Beau nodded, and decided not to add his comment. It was enough that Rae had stated the case for both of them.

Giles had the grace to look chastised. “You are quite right, Raedwolf. Neither of you have ever let me down. My bid to out-think Ulric led me to forget your determination and loyalty and place both you and Henry in some danger, which I deeply regret.”

Absalom was watching the exchange with interest. “So much fuss over such a small object.” He moved to the central table and touched a rolled parchment. “But the value of the scroll is inestimable. I can only express my thanks to Sir Giles for entrusting it to our priory and to both of you, and Henry, for the trials you have gone through in this whole sordid affair.”

“That is the real scroll isn’t it?” Rae asked. “All this time we were chasing after a worthless scrap of parchment.”

“I’m afraid so,” Giles told him moving to stand next to Absalom. “The scroll I sent with you and Beau is but a blank page. I brought this to the priory earlier this day.”

“I would enjoy the look on Ulric’s face when he opens the false scroll,” Beau chortled.

Rae grinned. “It would be worth the cost of seeing the scoundrel again.”

“I trust we shall never have to set eyes on Sir Ulric again,” Giles with some determination. “I have no wish to use my sword against a fellow knight, but use it I will if the man crosses our path again.”

Beau agreed wholeheartedly, understanding Giles’ wrath at the man who had endangered his son. “But what I don’t understand,” he said, having mulled the matter over in him mind as they were speaking, “is why Ulric did not just deliver the scroll to the Temple in London in the first place and gain favourable entry? Why the subterfuge?”

“I can only surmise that Ulric felt too many people knew of the scroll’s existence and the original theft, the merchant it was purloined from for one. To counter any possible claims upon the scroll, and jeopardise his case for admittance to the order, it would be best for the artefact to just disappear,” Giles suggested.

“Enough talk of such matters, the scroll is safe and no doubt Sir Ulric’s perfidy will be justly dealt with by God himself.” Absalom enjoined. “Come, enjoy the fruits of our priory. The mead is of particularly good quality this season.”

They took his advice, making a fine meal of the meats and fruit Absalom had provided and as Beau let the honey sweet mead slide down his throat he had to agree with the friar. The quality was indeed excellent

“You might as well stay over until the morning and we can ride back together as I intend to spend this night at the priory to settle Henry in,” Giles told them when they had finished.

They looked across to the couch Henry had taken up to find the boy, bored no doubt by the adult conversation, sound asleep. His tunic was not so bright now, as stained and bedraggled as it was, while his bonnet had slipped down one side of his head, its feather no long jaunty but threadbare and sad. He looked every inch the tired boy at the end of a very long and trying day.

Giles lifted him up into his arms, bestowing a fond look on the boy. “I will meet you at The Hound in the morning and we can ride back together,” he said.

“What of him?” Beau asked, looking at Guustave, who grinned back at him

“Guustave will journey back with us too. He is to join the household again,” Giles told him. “That was the original intention of his journey here, before I turned him to another purpose. I am sure you will find him a useful addition to the garrison, Beau.”

Guustave’s grin turned feral. “T’will be a more interesting life, I am sure, Sir Beau, than following the fairs for the coin from wrestling matches,” he said.

Beau heaved a put upon sigh and was just about to say what he thought of that when Rae grabbed his arm and started to hustle him toward the door.

“Yes, Giles, tomorrow. We will be there,” Rae muttered as they left with hasty goodbyes.

“Just why are you pushing me around,” Beau asked once they were outside.

“Because a sparring competition in the priory between you and Guustave would not set well with Giles or Friar Absalom.”

“Hmm, perhaps you’re right,” Beau agreed with a grin. “Thou art very wise, Sir Raedwolf.”

Rae gave him a shove as they clattered down the passage, raising the eyebrows of more than one friar as they passed. There was a companionable silence then as they made their way to The Hound, broken only when Rae spoke.

“I don’t know whether to be angry at Giles for his deception of us or admiring of his tactics.”

Beau thought about that for a while. “Perhaps we are entitled to be a little bit of both,” he said. “Giles has always been the tactician, the strong thinker. And his ploy worked; we have to allow that. So maybe we should just be happy that Henry is safe and so is the scroll. And we are here to enjoy the rest of the night alone together.”

“There is that,” Rae said, and after a quick look around to make sure they were alone bestowed a kiss on his lover’s cheek.

Beau returned the kiss and they wandered close together back to the warm comfort of The Hound.

 

~~~

Later, very much later, when full night had fallen, they were lying in the large comfortable bed of the inn, the candle set atop the armoire in the corner casting a soft light over the room.

Rae stayed still and content, watching the play of light and shadow above him as Beau’s hands and lips roamed his body, bringing sweet pleasure.

“I wonder if the friars will be able to decipher the manuscript. And if they can, what it will tell us,” he mused, memory and possibilities chasing through his mind.

Beau moved up the bed so he was leaning over Rae, his eyes glinting with both arousal and petulance.

“If all you can think of at this moment is that damnable scroll, then I am being a very poor distraction,” he said, nipping playfully at Rae’s neck.

“You are doing just fine,” Rae assured him, drawing him down for a long kiss. Beau responded with an ardour that swept Rae up and drove wayward thoughts from his mind as Beau made sweet exquisite love to him.

After, they settled comfortably facing each other and Rae ran an idle finger along the torc that decorated Beau’s throat, watching the candle-light reflection on it shift and change as Beau breathed.

“I wonder if the friars will be able to authenticate it.”

“Are you still thinking about that damned scroll?” Beau complained.

“Hmm, we tracked the thing all over Oxford, I got a bump on the head, you had to wrestle with the giant who gave it to me and we ended up in a sword fight with Templar knights, so yes, I’m still thinking of it.

“There are better things we could put our minds to, you know,” Beau suggested, lifting Rae’s finger to his mouth and sucking on it.

“You’re insatiable,” Rae told him.

“And your problem with that is?”

Rae ignored him to continue with his train of thought. “It would be quite the thing though, would it not, if the scroll were truly Joseph’s and the grail were somewhere here, buried by him long ago in some dark place, just waiting for the right person to find it.”

“And you would like to be that person?” Beau queried, eyebrows raised.

“Why not?” said Rae. “If the friars prove the authenticity might we not be sent on another task to find the long lost grail?”

“I certainly hope not.” Beau was adamant. “I have done enough wandering in my lifetime thank you. The castle of Winterton Cowley is my home now and I’ll stay right there, thank you very much.”

“So you would not come with me to seek out holy relics and lost kings. The old legends I heard as a boy had it that the king of the Britons sent his men out on such quests. Perhaps you and I could follow in their stead, Sir Knight.”

“Why, Raedwolf. I did not realise I had such a romantic on my hands,” Beau laughed.

Rae kicked him, making Beau laugh all the harder, then carried on as though Beau had not spoken, his thoughts spreading from scrolls and grails to the legends of old.

“Monmouth might have had the right of it. About the ancient king.”

“His words are very fanciful, as are the histories he claims to be true. But who is to know,” Beau agreed, sober now in the seriousness of Rae’s manner.

“I thought you said you hadn’t read Monmouth’s history of the kings.”

“I haven’t. But I listened one night when the camp fires were high and we awaited the infidel’s morning attack. One of my fellow knights told the tale, as Monmouth had written it, he said, of Uther Pendragon and his son, the great King Arthur, and Merlin the sorcerer. It was a good tale to tell on such a night.”

“But you didn’t believe it.”

“Now I didn’t say that, did I?” Beau placed an admonishing finger on Rae’s nose. “If the scroll proves the truth of a grail that is hidden in the depths of the Glastonbury tor then the tales of Arthur and his sorcerer might also prove true. But that is for tomorrow or some far future time, and this is here and now. So be quiet and let me show you just how insatiable I am.”

Sweeping Rae into his arms Beau turned them so he was on top. Rae felt his body responding to Beau’s insistence and let his lover have his way. Beau was right; the dawn would come soon enough and they were in no hurry for it. Legends and myths could wait.

They fell asleep in a mix of limbs and if Rae dreamed of scrolls and grails, magic and holy quests then who would know or gainsay him?

Finis