Read King of the Middle March Online
Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland
WAS ON MY WAY TO THE FOOD-BARGE THIS AFTERNOON
when I noticed a knot of people much farther along the shore. Then I heard distant shouting.
As I ran along the ridge towards them, I made out a little rowing boat halfway over to the marshy islet that lies right opposite Milon's camp. There was no one in it, though. Then I spotted two people splashing in the water.
I ran down to the shore and saw Pagan, Milon's priest, standing on a slimy rock.
“What's happened?” I asked.
“Bertie!” said Pagan. “Again!”
“Trying to swim out to the little islet.”
“He can't swim. Not that far.”
“Exactly! I told him not to.”
“Look!” I exclaimed. “That man's almost reached him!”
“A fisherman,” said Pagan. “Saving Bertie and losing his boat.”
Pagan and I and a group of Milon's men all watched as the fisherman grabbed Bertie and then, swimming on his back like an upsidedown frog with Bertie in his arms, propelled himself towards us.
I went down to the water's edge. I waded into the water up to my waist, and as soon as I could, grabbed Bertie and helped to haul him out of the water.
Bertie collapsed onto his hands and knees, and choked and coughed; he vomited; and then he lay on a heap of seaweed with his eyes closed. He looked like a stranded starfish.
“What were you doing?” I asked him.
Bertie didn't reply.
“Sir Laurent challenged me.”
“You can't even swim. Not properly.”
Bertie opened one eye. “He said I wouldn't dare.”
“You're mad!” I said. “You almost drowned.”
“I don't care.”
Bertie tried to sit up, then flopped back onto the seaweed again. “You know what I told you,” he said, and his voice was hoarse.
“But that doesn't mean you have toâ¦You don't want to die, do you?”
“Of course not!” said Bertie indignantly, and he propped himself up on his elbows. “Of course I don't. I was being alive. You'd be the same if you were me. You'd want to be fierce and alive the whole time.”
T IS ALL AGREED
Seven days of consultations, seven days of gallopings up and down the island and crossings between Saint Nicholas and the Rialto. Then at noon today Marquis Boniface and our envoys met the Doge and his councillors in the basilica of Saint Mark's to solemnize our new understanding, and Lord Stephen and I accompanied them.
The Grand Council even provided us with a translator. She's called Simona, and she's twenty-one. She told me she quite often translates for English merchants visiting Venice. When she was seventeen, she got betrothed to an English cloth-trader from Norfolk and learned English from him, but before they could marry he and his companions were attacked and killed by bandits near Verona.
Not only was Saint Mark's packed, but the huge garden in front of it was swarming with people as well. So many people were sitting or standing up in the olive trees that I thought the branches might break.
“No, no!” said Simona. “Olives seldom break.
apricots! They break.”
Simona looks rather like an apricot herself: Her skin's sandypink and slightly furry, and she's small and smiling and round.
“In our garden,” she told us, “we have
Last year the fruit was so heavy, two branches broke.”
Saint Mark's must be the most beautiful church in the world because the walls and the cupola and the roof are covered in burnt gold and you walk on mosaics. Thousands and thousands of tiny colored stone squares, no bigger than my fingernails. Patterned in squares and semicircles and triangles. Bishop's purple and cornflower blue and olive green and rust and orange.
Before high mass, the Doge tripped while climbing the steps to the lectern, and almost fell.
What if he had? What if he'd quickly wasted and died? And what if Cardinal Capuano hadn't eaten a bad oyster, but had come with us to meet the Doge? Sometimes it seems that great decisions are the result not of careful intention but of sheer accident.
The Doge stood at the lectern. “My people!” he called out in his reedy voice. “I nearly fell! I nearly fell, and our crusade nearly failed. The greatest undertaking ever undertaken by Christian men. But we have grasped it with both hands!”
To emphasize his point, the Doge grasped the lectern, and the Venetians in the basilica laughed.
The Doge waited until he could be heard again, and that was good because he was speaking in Venetian, and Simona had to translate for us. “My people!” he called out. “These crusaders are the best, bravest men in the world. Venice is proud to be part of this crusade.” The Doge paused. “I am old,” he said, “and my health is failing. Like a cat, I often dozeâ¦” The Doge rapped the lectern. “And I'm instantly awake! I've been your leader for longer than most of you have been alive. Will you allow me to take the Cross? To lead you and look after you on our pilgrimage?”
Now the whole basilica waved and roared like the sea.
I looked at Marquis Boniface. He didn't look troubled; he just looked thoughtful.
“Will you allow me to live or die with you?”
There were tears in Simona's eyes. “He is blind and sees. He is old and always young,” she said. She took Lord Stephen's right hand and squeezed it.
Lord Stephen bent towards me. “And he's wily!” he said. “Extremely wily!”
The Doge proceeded to the altar, flanked by priests. Then one priest sewed the scarlet cross onto the front of his cotton cap, and around me everyone was cheering.
“Why his cap?” I asked Simona. “Why not his tunic?”
“So everyone can see it,” Simona replied.
After this, the priests rang handbells; they swung incense burners, and many other Venetians came forward and took the Cross.
“I swearâ¦I swearâ¦I swear by Almighty God that I will serve Doge Enrico Dandolo of Venice, and be loyal to him in Zara and wheresoever he leads me.”
Most of the Venetians seemed to know we're going to Zara before we fight the Saracens, and they were glad about it, but what will all the crusaders do when they find out? And what will Cardinal Capuano say?
“I swearâ¦I swearâ¦I swear and acknowledge Enrico Dandolo as my true and only lord. Let everyone bear witness!”
The Venetians did bear witness! Each time a knight completed his vows, he was greeted with a shout, and around me many faces were shining with tears.
And then the Doge held up his thin hands. “Release the ships!” he called out. “Untether them! Point their prows east!”
There was such cheering and crying and stamping of feet that you might have thought the whole world was breaking into bits.
“So now our crusade has two leaders,” I said.
“A recipe for disaster!” Lord Stephen replied grimly.
Tonight, bonfires blazed in each camp on Saint Nicholas.
Lord Stephen and my father both chose to sleep, so Serle and I walked down to Milon's camp with Rhys and Turold.
As far as we know, we are still the only Englishmen to have joined this crusade. That's very surprising and disappointing because when Fulk came to the March and preached the crusade, it seemed certain many people would take the Cross. Sir Josquin des Bois said he would come, and so did hundreds from other parts of England.
“You can blame King John for that,” said Lord Stephen. “If he'd chosen to come himself, or even encouraged others, many would have followed.”
Milon's men had tied torches to the ends of their lances. They ran around in the dark, waving them and giving strange, short little shouts. Crossing and quartering the Provins camp. Beating its bounds.
Then we all gathered in a fire-circle. Pagan gave thanks that our crusade can sail at last, and we prayed for our own safety, for our families and everyone at home.â¦
The wind was from the west, and as it blew over the camp, it snatched sparks from the torches, and tossed them; it carried them off, so fleeting, down to the dark sea.
N CLEAR DAYS, THE MOUNTAINS NORTH FROM HERE
look quite close, but Simona says they're more than fifty miles away. Their peaks and valleys are like a long line of open, ravening beaks.
Before we left Saint Mark's yesterday, Simona showed us two mosaic peacocks, even more beautiful than the woven ones decorating the tent of the Saracen traders in the
“They promise life everlasting,” Simona said, “because peacocks never, never die.” Her breasts heaved and her dark eyes flashed, and then she pinched Lord Stephen's pink cheeks!
Lord Stephen harrumphed and smiled rather nervously.
“Well, then! Yes! Well, then!” he exclaimed. “With all Lady Judith's peacocks at Holtâ¦Holt! England! With all her peacocks, I do believe we could lay a path of feathers from earth to heaven.”
“Ah!” groaned Simona.
She took Lord Stephen's arm and nestled against him, and her painted eyelids fluttered.
“Whatever next!” Lord Stephen said.
I could see he was smiling, though. And very nearly strutting.
HEN I LOOKED INTO MY SEEING STONE, I COULD
see King Arthur and Queen Guinevere and a young woman mounted on a mule in the great hall at Camelot.
“People say your court is the finest on middle-earth,” the young woman begins. “They say it compares with the courts of Alexander and Julius Caesar.”
“Dismount!” says King Arthur.
“I will not,” the young woman replies.
“Fresh rushes on the floor,” Queen Guinevere says, “strewn with marigolds and wild mint. No one's allowed to ride into this hall. Not even on a mule!”
“And everyone dismounts when the king is dismounted,” Arthur tells her.
“Forgive me,” says the woman, “but I will not dismount until a knight comes to the castle of Corbenic and wins the Grail. Is there no knight at your Round Table who can do that?”
She is wearing a white wimple and has a shield hanging from her neck: a scarlet cross on a snow-white background. Her mule, he's white as well, and a hound is following them.
“Many knights have tried and many have failed,” the king says.
“They have all failed,” says the young woman. “Even Sir Gawain failed to ask the question, so the Guardian of the Grail still writhes
in agony. His wounds bleed day and night, men fight, kingdoms crumble, this whole world is a wasteland. I was there when Sir Gawain spoke to Nascien, the hermitâ¦”
Then my seeing stone led me out of the hall, and into the dark cave itself. I could see nothing at first, then nothing but sparks, torches. After that, three shadowy figures: the woman on her mule, Sir Gawain, and the hermit.
“Everyone knows about you,” Nascien begins. “How you dared face the Green Knight. Everyone's got a story to tell about you. Your prowess. Your endurance. Your honor. So is that the end of your story?”
Sir Gawain doesn't reply.
“You're not a soldier of God,” Nascien tells Gawain. “Your fame is written in other men's blood.”
“I have opposed evil. I've defended the weak.”
“You beheaded an innocent woman, Lady Saraide, Sir Blamoure's wife. You're a spiritual beggar!”
Now Sir Gawain leaves the cave, and mounts Kincaled. I can see him cantering up to the gates of a great castle. It's made of marble, like the Doge's palace.
Two boys take off Sir Gawain's armor; two young women dressed in cloth of gold wash him. And now two knights lead Gawain to an inner courtyard. The ground is parched yellow grass, and in the shade of an arbor covered with vines, a man is lying on a bed. Its four posts are glowing: They're made of red gold.
The vines are shriveled; the grapes are wrinkled grey pebbles.
Sir Gawain walks softly up to the man. King Pellam, Guardian
of the Grail. I saw Sir Balin wound him with the lance Longinus used to pierce Jesus.
“Gawain,” says the king, and his voice is little more than a whisper, “you have come to Corbenic and I cannot even raise myself to greet you.”
“That is why I have come,” Sir Gawain says.
He looks at the wounded king: his ivory skin; his eyes dark with pain; his scarlet hat emblazoned with a gold cross; the blood oozing from the gash in his ribs.
Now the arbor fills with yellow light brighter than that of the rising sun.
“Gawain,” says the king, “this light is the sign of God's great love for you. You are one of the bravest, the most honorable knights on earth.
“Once before, a knight reached Corbenic, and this same light shone. But he failed to ask the question, and that is why his quest failed.”
“Whom does the Grail serve?” Sir Gawain says, and he closes his eyes.
“Whom does the Grail serve?” the king repeats. “That is the question.”
Gawain gazes at King Pellam. “I will not fail you,” he says.
Now the same two knights lead Sir Gawain away to a gloomy hall where twelve white-haired knights are sitting and about to eat. Who are they? Are they Jesus's disciples?
A door opens. Two young women glide in and the room fills with light. One woman is carrying the Holy Grail, covered with
thick white silk, and a dazzling sunbeam rises from it. I can scarcely look at it. The other woman is carrying Longinus's lance. Its tip is dripping with blood.
The Grailâ¦the Holy Grail. It is covered, but within it I can see a shape. Aboychild.
The two young women pause in front of Sir Gawain.
“Now!” say the knights. “Gawain! The question!”
But Sir Gawain just gazes at the Grail, transfixed, the Grail and the lance, and he keeps reaching out towards them. Three drops of blood fall at his feet. Gawain keeps reaching out, but the young women float the Grail and lance away from him.
“The question! The question!” the old knights urge Sir Gawain, but Sir Gawain is dazed.
“Now or never!”
It is no good. Sir Gawain sees the lips of the old knights moving, but all he can hear is the whirlwind of his own sins and short-comings.
Now the young women leave the hall and the old knights stand up and follow them. Sir Gawain stands alone in the gloom. He is utterly worn out. He cannot stay awake. He lies on a couch and sleeps.â¦
A horn blast echoes through Corbenic, and at once Sir Gawain scrambles to his feet. As it dies away, he can hear through one wall King Pellam moaning, and through another a choir of angels singing.â¦
Now in comes the woman wearing a white wimple who rode right into Camelot on a white mule.
“Sir Gawain,” she says, “you've committed many sins, but so has every man. Your greatest failing lies in what you've left undone. You did not ask the question.”
“I could not!” Sir Gawain cries. “I wasn't able to.”
The horn sounds again, and a voice without a body booms through the hall. “The man who does not belong here: Let him be gone.”
Now the young woman leads Sir Gawain to his loyal Kincaled, and he rides away.
Hoots of wind! Stinging rain, and the hammer of thunder!
“I have failed King Pellam,” Sir Gawain says to himself. “I've failed King Arthur and the fellowship of the Round Table. I've failed myself.”
The thunder becomes a distant rumor. The spattering rain softens into a blur. Like a feeding butterfly, the air trembles and faintly flutters.
Now I can see the court at Camelot again, packed with knights and ladies, and the young woman in a white wimple, still mounted on her mule.
“You see?” says the young woman.
“But I believe a knight will achieve this quest,” King Arthur replies.
“My shield once belonged to Joseph of Arimathea,” the young woman tells them. “He painted this cross on it with blood. I will leave it with you, hanging on this pillar, and only a knight who can achieve the Grail will be able to remove it. I'll leave my hound too. He'll recognize the knight and lick his hand.” The young woman pauses. “Look at me, Arthur!” she said in a loud voice.
She reaches up and sweeps off her wimple and everyone gasps. She is completely bald.
“Once, I had honey tresses,” she calls out, “but now not a hair will grow on my head. Blame all the knights who have failed. Pellam's kingdom is a wasteland. Children starve; babies are bloated with hunger. Nothing can grow until a knight comes to Corbenic and asks the question.”