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Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland

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King of the Middle March (12 page)

BOOK: King of the Middle March
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The Doge's oarsmen rowed his vermilion galley from the Rialto, and a huge crowd gathered on the quay. We raised our arms and cheered as they anchored.

The prow of the Doge's galley is made of iron and shaped like a dragon's head with a gaping mouth, and the banner of Saint Mark tugs and cracks above it, and the bulwarks are plated with colorful shields painted with all seven tinctures.

The moment I saw them, I thought of the huge press of knights when Arthur pulled the sword from the stone…the shields on their surcoats, stitched with such a gamut of colors and devices.

The entire galley is painted vermilion—the ribs, the sterncastle, the landing skiffs and the oarsmen's benches, even the oars, everything except the rudder and the mast and tackle.

Next to the mainmast there was a vermilion awning, made of samite, and under it I could see the Doge. He was wearing his white cotton cap stitched with the scarlet cross, and standing quite motionless, both arms outstretched. Like a victor. Like the crucified Christ.

There were priests in the middle story of the sterncastle, ten of them, maybe more, and they began to chant:

, Holy Ghost, Creator come,
From Thy bright heavenly throne!
Come, take possession of our souls,
And make them all Thine Own!”

How can Marquis Boniface turn away from all this? After all these preparations, and all this time.

He has decided he must go to Rome, but even if the Holy Father does object to our sailing to Zara, what can he do? He can't stop us now. Anyhow, we need the marquis with us. He's our leader.

A hundred trumpeters stood up along the bulwarks. They raised their silver instruments and, behind them, dozens of musicians beat their tabors and drums.

We yelled, we roared, we howled!

Someone grabbed my right arm and started pulling me backwards. It was Bertie.

“Quick!” he panted. “Come on! I've been looking for you everywhere.”

“Why? What is it?”


We barged and plunged our way through the cheering crowd, until we reached our galley.

“You've held everyone up,” Bertie gasped. “Milon says you're to come aboard at once, or he'll sail without you.”


picked a periwinkle growing amongst a scruff of weeds, and then I ran up the ramp.

“Are you mad?” Sir William shouted. “Throw that bloody flower overboard! Do you want to drown us all?”

“What do you mean?” I panted.

“Periwinkle!” Sir William snapped. “
Violette des sorciers.
The flower of death.”

“Death!” I yelped.

I stared at the blue star and twirled the stalk between my left thumb and forefinger. Then I sent it spinning over the gunwale.

As the Venetian oarsmen rowed us out from the quay, the priests began to ring bells. And from all the galleys around us, bells answered. What a clangor! Contrary and spirited, quicksilver, gruff, they held their own water court: heaven's messengers, riding with us, washing over the little marshy islets, appealing to the four dark corners of the world.

But the seawater slapping our prow was sharp. Tart. Abrupt. Short sounds without memories.

Then the sailors hoisted the lateen sail. Canvas snapped, rigging whipped, the mast screeched. We turned to face the open sea.

For a moment, I thought of Oliver and one of the old poems he recited to me:

Then those warriors stowed gleaming war-gear

deep within the galley; they launched

the well-built boat and began their journey.

Foaming at the prow and most like a seabird,

The boat sped over the waves, urged on by the wind…

A maelstrom of gulls whirled above us, silver-white and screaming. I stood on the prow and hurrahed to high heaven.



As soon as we sailed out to sea, leaving Saint Nicholas over our right shoulders, the wind picked up.

At once our oarsmen began to mutter and curse.


“God against us.”

“God's teeth!”

“Worse wind, sir,” one of the sailors told me, and he compressed his leathery face. “Bora is bad worse wind.”

Ahead and aft and all around us, our great fleet began to dance. Gaping galleys strained their graceful necks and reared up; the horse carrier nearest to us jerked and lifted and dipped through the water, foaming at the prow, and I thought of poor Bonamy and all the other horses tethered and swinging in their stalls; and the giant transport ships, the ones seventy paces long that hold a thousand men,
Eagle, Pilgrim
—the waves parted for them, frothing and gnashing.

Then the bora really opened its mouth, and the sailors scaled the mast ladders and pulled down the sails. Lord Stephen and my father and Milon took refuge in the sterncastle with the captain, and almost everyone else except the sailors and oarsmen went below deck because the saltspray kept flying into our faces, but Bertie and I sheltered behind a landing skiff.

That was when I saw it. The
the biggest ship of all, the one Silvano named after his wife, was in terrible trouble.

She was listing, and scarcely moving. Hundreds of men packed the deck, white hands waving. They must have been shouting for help but, because of the noise of the wind and waves, they could have been dumb men.

Bertie and I waved and yelled, and our oarsmen began to swing our galley round, but she was so heavy, and the fierce wind kept barging her back.

was sinking. It seemed to happen so slowly, it happened so fast. Water began to break over the leeward gunwale, and it must have gushed down through the hatchways, and the huge ship settled, darker and deeper, and all her pale sails panicked.

Then she went down, not prow first, not upended, but as a stone sinks. The body of the boat sank; there was nothing of her left but the tops of her masts and sails and the upper stories of her two castles, fore and aft. Then they too went down. Down into the dark water. They slid out of sight.

Bertie clutched my wrist, and I kept swallowing and my mouth was so dry. Our sailors and oarsmen went silent. Without a word they pulled us towards the
Our rowlocks and oar-holes groaned.

Hundreds of men were floating facedown in the water, and many hundreds more must have died below deck. Just a few wretches were clinging to the sides of waterlogged skiffs, oak planks, oarsmen's benches.

Our oarsmen were very skillful. We drifted up alongside one of the skiffs, then held firm, and the sailors threw out four lines, and the survivors grabbed them. Then we lowered a rope ladder, and one by one, they heaved themselves up and flopped aboard.

At least, the first three did. The last of them had only the strength to climb halfway up.

“Come on!” shouted Bertie.

“Now or not!” the oarsmen yelled. “Not?”

“Wait!” I called out. I can't swim but I climbed up onto the gunwale and then…then I just stepped off.

The water was freezing, but when I surfaced, choking, I was very close to the rope ladder. I clawed the water and grabbed the ladder, and began to climb, pushing my head hard into the buttocks of the man halfway up.

“Come on!” urged Bertie. “You're doing it! Come on!”

He reached right out and down, grabbed one hand, grabbed both, and hauled the wretch up.

I dragged myself up the last few steps and collapsed over the gunwale right on top of him.

Such small hands. Sandy-pink.

“Simona!” I cried. “Simona!” I put my arms right round her.

Simona was like a sodden sack. Unable to support herself.

“Help me carry her,” I said.

“Who is it?” Bertie asked. “How do you know her?”

Bertie and I lifted Simona away from the gunwale and laid her out on the deck. She looked up at us with her dark Venetian eyes, and her teeth began to chatter.

“Who is she?” Bertie asked me again. “What's her name?”

“Simona. The Master Shipwright's daughter.”

Simona began to cough. Then she turned on one side, and spewed up. I knelt beside her and gently held her head.

Behind me, I could hear several of the oarsmen muttering.



“Bad worse.”

“Ship-woman no.”

Simona gazed up at me.

“I'll look after you,” I said.

“I will too,” said Bertie forcefully.

“I didn't even know you were coming,” I said. “You're alive! At least you're alive!”

Simona sighed feebly. “My father,” she said, and her voice was quite expressionless. “Where is my father?” Then she sighed again, and closed her eyes.

Silvano! He must have drowned.

It wasn't because of the periwinkle, was it? The one I gave Simona?
Violette des sorciers.


than the others?” Nascien asks.

“I don't.”

“Why should you succeed when they have failed?”

“I've fought in Christ's name against howling heathens,” Sir Lancelot says. “I've escaped from a city under siege and blazing; I've fought demons in a graveyard. I am resolved to achieve the Holy Grail.”

“Do you repent of all your sins?” the hermit asks.

Sir Lancelot bows his head. “All of them,” he says.

“All of them?”

“Except one,” says Sir Lancelot.

“Which one?” asks Nascien.

“How can such sweetness be a sin?”

“All sins taste sweet,” the hermit replies, “but their rewards taste as bitter as gall.”

“My sin is love,” Sir Lancelot says. “I love a woman, and she is a queen. She's married to a king.”

“Foul lust!” says the hermit.

“No!” Lancelot quietly replies. “Our love is pure. I love her more than my own life, and whatever I do, I do in her name.”

“You deceive yourself, Lancelot,” the hermit replies. “You are Judas! You betray Jesus—you crucify Him.”

“I've never told anyone,” says Sir Lancelot. “I've never boasted of it, never betrayed it. I've never been disloyal to my king.”

“Repent here and now!” Nascien orders him. “Lust is a deadly sin.”

“How can I?” Sir Lancelot protests. “Whatever good I've done is because of our love.”

“You're deaf,” the hermit says. “Your ears are thick with wax. You're so blind, you wouldn't be able to see the Holy Grail if it appeared in this cave. But Lancelot! It's not too late. Once you were the greatest of all knights. You had no rival. You knew what was right, and you did what was right.”

Sir Lancelot listens to the ring dove singing at the entrance to the cave. His whole life filters past him.

“Satan himself was racked with pain because he saw the Holy Ghost burning in you,” the hermit says. “He longed to ruin you, and he knew his best chance was with a woman.”

Sir Lancelot shakes his head.

“He entered into Queen Guinevere,” continues the hermit, “and looked out at you through her eyes. The queen has blinded you to your deadly sin. You're lost to Our Lord.”

Sir Lancelot sits in the cave, his arms wrapped round his knees, turning the hermit's words over and over.

“I've never been untrue to Guinevere,” he says at last, “and she's never been untrue to me. Our love is honorable. I can never repent of it.”

The hermit purses his lips. “But you will forgo it.”

Sir Lancelot closes his eyes. When he opens them again, they're full of tears. “I will forgo it,” he says heavily.

“Unless your thoughts and feelings and actions match your words,” the hermit warns him, “you will never succeed.”

Now Sir Lancelot leaves the cave, and canters up to the gates of the great marble castle, Corbenic. He is welcomed, as Sir Gawain was, and the same two knights lead him into the castle cloister.

I can see the Guardian of the Grail again. Sir Lancelot walks across the dead grass to the foot of his bed.

“Lancelot,” the king whispers, “you have come to Corbenic, and I cannot even raise myself to greet you.”

“Sire,” says Sir Lancelot, “that's why I have come. I will not fail you.”

A young woman enters the cloister. She's wearing a wimple. She comes over to King Pellam and begins to dress his wounds, shaking and sobbing.

And now she starts to sing…her long eyelashes are trembling.

“Lulli, lullay, lulli, lullay.
The falcon has carried my love away.

He carries him up, he carries him down,
He carries him into an orchard brown.

In that orchard, there is a bed,
Hung with gold shining red,

And in that bed there lies a knight,
His wounds bleeding day and night.

Beside that bed a young woman stays,
And she sobs by night and day.

And beside that bed there stands a stone,
carved thereon.”

It's true! There are words now on the block of stone at the foot of the king's bed, and there weren't when I saw it before.
Corpus Christi.
The body of Christ. Does that mean we fail Christ Himself in failing King Pellam?

The words of the lullaby are simple, but they're not easy to understand. Why does the falcon carry off the man the young woman loves? I think the young woman beside the bed is the one who rode into Camelot on a mule, and asked King Arthur whether there was no knight at the Round Table who could achieve the Holy Grail. And maybe the knight in the song is the Guardian of the Grail.

Now the two knights return to the cloister and lead Sir Lancelot to the gloomy hall where twelve white-haired knights are waiting. He sits, he eats with them, he talks to them.

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.

But Sir Lancelot cannot even see it. He has come to Corbenic but he cannot ask the question. I can tell by his face, by my own heart, he's thinking about Queen Guinevere.

He's longing to see her again, longing to hold her to him. Cool and clean. How can he possibly forgo this?

After supper, the old knights proceed from the hall and Sir Lancelot is so utterly worn out, he cannot stay awake.…He lies on a couch and sleeps.

Now a horn blast echoes through Corbenic. A voice without a body booms through the hall: “The man who does not belong here: Let him be gone.”

In my stone sound fades and shapes fade. Colors fade. Sir Lancelot fails.

BOOK: King of the Middle March
6.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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