He discovered the loss after the All Hallows service. Merthin had enjoyed the drama: the darkness, the weird noises, the music beginning so quietly and then swelling until it seemed to fill the huge church, and finally the slow illumination of candles. He had also noticed, as the lights began to come on, that some people had been taking advantage of the darkness to commit minor sins for which they could now be forgiven: he had seen two monks hastily stop kissing, and a sly merchant remove his hand from the plump breast of a smiling woman who appeared to be someone else's wife. Merthin was still in an excited mood when they returned to the hospital.

As they were waiting for the nuns to serve breakfast, a kitchen boy passed through the room and went up the stairs carrying a tray with a big jug of ale and a platter of hot salt beef. Mother said grumpily: "I would think your relative, the earl, might invite us to breakfast with him in his private room. After all, your grandmother was sister to his grandfather."

Father replied: "If you don't want porridge, we can go to the tavern."

Merthin's ears pricked up. He liked tavern breakfasts of new bread and salt butter. But Mother said: "We can't afford it."

"We can," Father said, feeling for his purse; and that was when he realised it was gone.

At first he looked around the floor, as if it might have fallen; then he noticed the cut ends of the leather thong, and he roared with indignation. Everyone looked at him except Mother, who turned away, and Merthin heard her mutter: "That was all the money we had."

Father glared accusingly at the other guests in the hospital. The long scar that ran from his right temple to his left eye seemed to darken with rage. The room went quiet with tension: an angry knight was dangerous, even one who was evidently down on his luck.

Then Mother said: "You were robbed in the church, no doubt."

Merthin guessed that must be right. In the darkness, people had been stealing more than kisses.

"Sacrilege, too!" said Father.

"I expect it happened when you picked up that little girl," Mother went on. Her face was twisted, as if she had swallowed something bitter. "The thief probably reached around your waist from behind."

"He must be found!" Father roared.

The young monk called Godwyn spoke up. "I'm very sorry this has happened, Sir Gerald," he said. "I will go and tell John Constable right away. He can look out for a poor townsman who has suddenly become rich."

That seemed to Merthin a very unpromising plan. There were thousands of townspeople and hundreds more visitors. The constable could not observe them all.

But Father was slightly mollified. "The rogue shall hang!" he said in a voice a little less loud.

"And, meanwhile, perhaps you and Lady Maud, and your sons, would do us the honour of sitting at the table that is being set up in front of the altar," Godwyn said smoothly.

Father grunted. He was pleased, Merthin knew, to be accorded higher status than the mass of guests, who would eat sitting on the floor where they had slept.

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Excerpted from World Without End by Ken Follett. Copyright © 2007 by Ken Follett. Excerpted by permission of Dutton, a division of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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