Read King of the Middle March Online
Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland
ORD STEPHEN PROPPED HIMSELF UP AGAINST HIS
saddlebag, but Sir William preferred to stand because he finds it difficult to sit. I knelt on my mattress, and Serle lay on his stomach with his chin in his hands.
“What I don't understand is how we can attack other Christians if we're soldiers of God,” I said.
“No one's said anything about attacking them,” replied Lord Stephen.
“One day, Arthur,” said Serle, “you're going to trip up on your own conscience.”
“Either your conscience or your tongue,” added Sir William. “One or the other, they'll do for you.”
“No,” said Lord Stephen. “Arthur has a point. I've heard today that several knights are talking of breaking their vows and turning for home.”
“Well, then,” Serle said nastily, “Arthur can go with them.”
“Take your choice!” Sir William said. “Either we sail to Zara or this whole bloody crusade disbands.”
“The Doge did say it was his right to recapture Zara before we sailed against the Saracens,” I said.
“That may be true,” Lord Stephen replied. “But recruiting us all to help him? I don't know about that. In any case, he wasn't even coming with us until the day before yesterday.”
“Are the Venetians just out for themselves, then?” Serle asked.
“Everyone is!” my father retorted. “Let's get on with it. All the foot soldiers, and Turold and Rhys, do you think they give an owl's hoot about where we're going or whom we're fighting?”
“It's a job for them,” I replied. “It's a cause for us.”
“What I think,” said Serle, “is all this talking makes things worse.”
“No!” I said. “It makes things clearer.” I turned to Lord Stephen. “Do you accept the agreement, sir?”
Lord Stephen screwed up his face and sighed. “What I think is that not being able to pay for the ships, and our great quest, together justify thisâ¦this solution. I don't like it, but I can accept it.”
“Where is Zara?” asked Serle.
“Across the Adriatic,” Lord Stephen said. “Away down the coast.”
“What will happen when we get there?” I asked.
Lord Stephen gave me a thin smile. “And before we get there,” he said. “I hear we'll be stopping at the port of Pirano to exercise our horses and to replenish our supply of fresh water.”
“What if the people of Zara resist?” I asked.
“Believe me, boy!” my father said. “When they see the size of our fleet, they'll speak at both ends!”
Lord Stephen licked his lips and rubbed his mouth with the back of his right hand. “This sand!” he said irritably. “It's getting into everything. The wind's in our face again.”
“And God's behind us!” Sir William barked. “Sweet Jesus! Cheer up!”
IMONA'S FRAGRANCE MADE ME ACHE. SO COOL AND
clean. Like an early morning pool of creamy rose petals, just fallen. It reminded me of dawn at Caldicot, dew on the grass, muzzy patches of gossamer, the first beech leaves still softâ¦
Here, everything is sticky and salty. Saint Nicholas reeks of sweat and rot and manure, and we scarcely notice it.
“Where have you come from?” I asked.
Simona stuck her thumb over her right shoulder. “That galley.”
“From the Rialto?”
“Who said you could?”
Simona looked at me as if I were an idiot. “My father.”
“Silvano,” Simona said. “The Master Shipwright.”
“I didn't know that,” I exclaimed. “Silvano's your father?”
Simona smiled. A dawdling smile. “What are you doing?” she asked me.
“Oiling Bonamy's saddle. These flaps should be supple and soft.”
“Supple and soft,” Simona murmured. “I like these words.”
“And they're sodden and sour,” I said.
Simona sat down beside me.
“Sir Arthur!” she said.
“I call you Arthur?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Do you love?”
“What do you mean?”
I'm not sure why, maybe it was the way she asked, maybe because I haven't talked about them for so long, except to myself, but I began to tell Simona about Grace and Gatty and then about Winnie and our betrothal.
“Her father's a Marcher knight,” I said.
“From the borderland,” I said. “Between England and Wales.”
“What is she like?”
“Herself!” I exclaimed. “Her hair's red-gold. Burning. And her eyes are tawny. She's very bold and always laughing, and she has a hot temper. On our betrothal day she was wearing a white silk dress and opal ear-jewels, and they flashed and swung on their stalks each time she moved.”
“My dress was green,” Simona said.
“My father only agreed to our betrothal,” I told Simona, “because I was leaving on this crusade, and he warned me that he and Winnie's father haven't settled all the terms yet. I remember exactly what he said: âYoung women are ten a penny. There are plenty more Little Miss Winifreds, believe you me.'”
“No!” exclaimed Simona. “You love Winnie; she loves you.”
“That's right,” I said.
“Did you swear?”
“Both our families joined hands around us,” I said. “Everyone! Simona, what's wrong?”
“We couldn't do that,” she said, “not when I was betrothed.”
“To an Englishman.”
“Yes, and his family was all in England.” Simona shook her head. “But my family is big. Six brothers. Many, many cousins and nephews and nieces. They all joined hands around us.”
“You exchanged gold rings,” I said.
Simona held up her left hand.
“Yours is like a gold knot,” I said. “Look at mine!”
“Winnie complained hers was too tight,” I said, “and her mother told her young women always say that, and she'd get used to it.”
Simona reached over and touched the cord around my neck.
“My half of our pledge-penny,” I said. “I pledged to protect Winnie according to God's law, and pay for the rearing of our children, and share my property with her. Then I broke the coin and gave her one half.”
“Same,” said Simona.
“And Sian made everyone laugh,” I said. “My foster sister. She's eleven, and she called out, âI love you, Arthur. I wish I could marry you!'”
Then I remembered Tom saying that if I didn't come home from the crusade, he'd gladly marry Winnie for me, and Serle saying in that case he stood a very good chance; but I didn't tell Simona that.
“I knew,” she said. “Women know.”
“You, and love. Love and a cough cannot be hidden! I think you love to be in love.”
“And you love to talk about it,” I replied.
Simona closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “He was called Aylmer,” she said. “Aylmer de Burnham.”
“Tell me about him.”
Simona looked up. “Here's Lord Stephen.”
I jumped up and gave Simona my hand.
“Simona!” said Lord Stephen, smiling, and he gave her a small bow.
“You both,” said Simona, “I've brought you a sailing gift!” She slipped her fingers into the bag tied to her belt.
“A gift!” said Lord Stephen, smiling sardonically. “From a Venetian?”
Simona frowned at him, then gave him a playful push. She pulled out of the bag two small flasks.
“What are they?” I asked.
Simona drew out one of the stoppers. “Hair soap,” she said.
I sniffed it. Cool and clean and sharp.
“Lemon with curds,” Simona told us. “Wash your hair with it. It will dissolve the salt. All the stickiness.”
I stooped and picked a pretty violet periwinkle. “Here's a present for you too,” I said.
Simona smiled. She fixed the flower in her hair.
OU REALLY WANT TO KNOW
ASKED GIFF, AND HE
leered at me. He was sitting on the mangonel, facing the cup, which is as large as a rainwater barrel.
“Stones?” I asked.
“And stuff,” said Godard.
Giff fingered the rope. “We chuck whatever there is.”
“Once, we chucked a corpse,” Godard said. “One of their own men. He'd fallen off the wall, so we threw him back up again.”
“I did fifty loads of dung,” said Giff, and both of them laughed coarsely. “I buried them in it. You can't wait, can you, Arthur?”
“Sir Arthur!” Godard corrected him, and they both laughed again.
Giff and Godard and Milon's men have loaded all kinds of Venetian siege engines onto the transport ship: mangonels, tormenta, ballistae.
“And these are just the little creatures,” Giff said. “The manglers and crushers. Once we get there, we'll make the scaling ladders and the towers and cats.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“You'll see,” said Godard, and then he chuckled at Giff. “You remember when we hurled back that head?”
All day the quay was packed with knights and squires, priests, armorers, stablemen, foot soldiers, servants, carpenters, sawyers, caulkers, sailmakers, ropemakers, oarsmen, and despite the cardinal's orders, dozens of women, all loading our transport ships with open crates of salted mackerel and cod, smoked mullet and tuna, creels of herring, pails of mussels and whelks, oysters and cockles, limpets and barnacles, leaking prawns, knots of eels, flitches of ham, legs and sides and haunches of beef and mutton, dozens of rabbits and hares hanging on hooks, baskets full of unplucked chickens, white loaves, black loaves, trencher loaves, tubs of oats and barley, barrels of groats, eggs, small bins of grey salt, rounds of cheese, olive oil and walnut oil, jars of ginger and cinnamon and saffron and cloves, mace and galingale and grain of paradise, strings of shallots and garlic and onions, leeks, horseradish, spinach and parsnips and cabbages, broad beans, red carrots, mushrooms, and fruit of all kindsâpeaches, apples, pears, plums, medlars and cherries, dried raisins, dates and sweet figs from Egypt, pots of honey, reed baskets of pistachios, pine nuts and almonds and hazelnuts, kegs of ale, casks of verjuice and red Venetian wine, pouring pitchers, pepper mills, ewers and linen napkins, clay ovens, pewter mugs and leather tankards, sacks of charcoal, tinderboxes, tripods, hooks, iron cauldrons, long-handled pans, stirring sticks and flesh hooks, clattering platters, pottage bowls, porringers, bundles of skewers, trays, serving dishes, shaggy towels, chopping boards and knives, ladles and wooden spoons, leather bottles, ashwood pails, costrels and flasks, mousetraps, swords in their scabbards, circular shields and shields shaped like hearts and hunchback moons, lances, war hammers, axes and daggers, longbows and crossbows, quivers of
arrows, bracers, caltrops, staves, helmets, chausses and cuisses and coats of mail, aketons and fustian breeches, whetstones, spades and shovels, sledgehammers, chisels and claws, saws and pickaxes, augers, props, sheets of tin, iron-tipped rams, ladders, coils of stout rope, set-squares and planes, mallets, breast-drills, scalpels and saws and pincers, leech-jars and rolls of bandaging, pots of oil-and-ash soap, Milon's wooden bathtub, large basins, cutthroats and polished steel mirrors, combs, bags of wormwood and lemon balm and marjoram, crocks of ointments, sacks and saddlebags stuffed with all kinds of clothing, tunics and doublets, hoses and belts, surcoats, caps, needles and waxed thread, a fool's cap and bells, boots and rolls of hide, lasts, pissing pots, Bible boxes, psalters, ampullae full of holy water, reliquaries, crosses and altar cloths, patens, pyxes, incense burners, candles and vats of wax, prayer beads and holy oil, pairs of cymbals, handbells, lutes and citoles and nakers and tabors, rebecs and lutes, bagpipes and crumhorns and shawms, winding sheets and sacks, a hideous mask on a stick, parchment and quills and inkhorns and oakgalls and pumice-bread, a sundial with the four winds puffing their cheeks, rolls of canvas, barrels of tar, backgammon and checkers and chess boards, little boxes of dice, squares of leather, sheepskins, mattresses, woollen blankets, marten and squirrel and rabbitskin bedcovers, bolsters, pillows, as well as all the siege enginesâ¦and one or two things I can't remember.
Yelling and whistling and milling and elbowing, shouldering and cursing, foul-mouthing and bawling, staggering, tripping: As I looked down from the deck of our transport ship, it was like looking down at an anthill. The crusaders were just as busy as ants, and like ants, they got in each other's way.
I was waiting on the quay with Bonamy this afternoon when Shortneck suddenly neighed and bucked while Turold was leading him along the plank to the door in the side of our horse carrier. Maybe another devil-hornet!
They both plunged off the plank into the water between the ship and the quay.
Shortneck swam to the end of the quay and scrambled ashore, and I picked up a grappling pole and lowered it for Turold.
The first time I did so, I clopped him on the head by mistake, and he opened his mouth to yell at me and swallowed a gallon of water. But then, choking, he grabbed the end of the pole and I pulled him along to the landing stage.
Poor Bonamy! When he saw what had happened to Shortneck, he wasn't at all eager. I tried to walk him to the bottom of the plank, but he dug in his front hooves and lowered his head.
“Ride him roundabout, sir,” Rhys told me. “He'll calm down.”
At least the door in the side of our ship is level with the stalls. In some of the transports, the horses lose their footing on the steep ramps inside the ship, and slither and slide down them.
Bonamy's stall is only a little wider than he is. There are leather straps hanging from a beam, and the stablemen belted two pairs of them under Bonamy so that he's half-suspended and his hooves barely touch the deck. In stormy weather, when the ship begins to roll, he should swing with her, and be safe. But all the same, he's not very happy.
Tomorrow we sail for Pirano and then Zara. So these are the last words I will write on Saint Nicholas, on the hundredth day since Lord Stephen and I left Holt.