Read King of the Middle March Online
Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland
HE BORA RAN OUT OF BREATH YESTERDAY, AND THEN
the warm sirocco began to blow from the southeast, and the captain was in a great hurry to set sail. We had to come aboard last night so we could leave at dawn. Everything has happened so quickly.
Yesterday morning I got more marjoram and linseed and wormwood from the surgeon, and then I ran down to the nunnery to see Sister Cika one more time. I knocked loudly on the ribbed door, but no one answered it; perhaps they were all at Terce. After that, it took me quite some time to find Bertie. He wasn't in Milon's house or exercising his horse, and in the end I found him in my own tower room, just staring out of the window.
“I've been looking for you everywhere,” I said.
Bertie punched the wall.
“That's how I feel too,” I said. “Angry and worse than that.”
“Tell Milon you're going to stay.”
“I can't!” I exclaimed. “I must take care of Lord Stephen. Milon's right. I must get him home.”
“Nothing lasts,” said Bertie. “When those German sausages gave me a chin-pie, and we went to the
together and met the
Saracens, and I told you I was a leucrota, and when the arrow got me and you saved meâ¦”
“I know,” I said.
Bertie shook his head furiously.
“I'll miss you too,” I said. “You make me laugh. And worry.”
“Why do you think?”
Bertie screwed up his face.
“Don't be such a miserable wood louse,” I said. “And don't believe everything other people tell you.”
Bertie and I caught one another's eyes, and the next thing was we were embracing each other.
“At least you've completely recovered,” I said huskily. “Milon has promised he'll come to England, and he says he'll bring you.”
“You'd better!” I said. “Bertrand de Sully!”
I heard someone calling me, so Bertie and I raced each other down the steps, and he won.
Serle was standing at the bottom. “That's where you are!” he said. “I'm going to exercise Shortneck. Do you want to come?”
“Of course!” I said.
Bertie and I embraced each other again, and he ran across the hall.
All at once, I remembered my Saracen-fish dream, and our galleys sinking; I remembered Bertie laughing and rolling over and over and diving away into the dark. And I knew I'd never see him again.
NCE WE WERE OUTSIDE THE WALLS, SERLE AND I
rode Shortneck and Bonamy hard. We must have galloped for at least two miles, and then we reined in.
I rubbed Bonamy's fiery neck. “Rhys made up a song about the color of horse coats once,” I said.
Serle answered my feelings, not my words.
“I'll look after him,” he said. “I'll do my best.”
“Do you want to send Sir John and Lady Helen a letter?” I asked.
“You know I can't write.”
“I'll write it for you.”
“What shall I say?”
“What do you want to say?”
“I don't know,” said Serle. “What they want to hear.”
“Say three things, then. About you.”
“About me. I am well. I am healthy. Say that.”
“Three special things, I mean. How you saved a Venetian girl from angry sailorsâ¦I don't know. About Zara. How when you close your eyes you see Caldicot and the winter wheat growingâ¦”
Serle shook his head. “You're better at words than I am.”
My mouth went dry. “Or about Sir William,” I said slowly. “Something. He was your uncle. Sir John's brother.”
“You must feel terrible,” said Serle.
“I do,” I replied in a low voice.
“What you did.”
“You're not sayingâ”
“I'm not saying anything,” said Serle in his thin, cutting voice. “Why? Should I?”
“If you'd been there and not with Simona,” I exclaimed, “it wouldn't have happened.”
“I see!” said Serle. “You're passing the blame.”
“I didn't kill him!” I cried. “You know I didn't! He wanted to kill me.”
When I lived at Caldicot, Serle was always so unfair, and he's still mean and insinuating sometimes.
For a while we drew apart. I trotted Bonamy and buried my face in his warm neck. Then we began to talk again.
“You and Simona.”
“What about it?” Serle bit his upper lip. He made it bleed.
“I won't tell Tanwen,” I said. “I'll tell her you talked about her and Kester, and often think about her.”
Serle gave me an odd lookâsuspicious and grateful at the same time.
“I do,” he said forlornly. “I wanted to ask you something.”
“That rag doll. The one with the dark eyes. Can I give it to Kester?”
I lowered my eyes, then I slowly shook my head. “She's too sad,” I said.
When we got back to the undercroft and dismounted, Serle said, “You'll know what to tell them. My mother and father. Everyone. Greet them all in God. Give themâ”
Serle shook his head unhappily.
“Yes. Give them hope.”
“I will,” I said.
“And this,” said Serle, twisting and twisting one of the shiny brass buttons decorating Shortneck's bridle until it came off. “Give this to Kester!”
“If I don't come backâ¦you knowâ¦can you watch over him?”
I smiled. I wanted to cry. I embraced Serle. I know Milon will welcome him, but it will be difficult for him here without Lord Stephen or Sir William or any of us. To begin with, anyhow.
“Say a prayer for me,” I told him. “In Jerusalem. God bring you back home!”
When Serle left me alone with Bonamy, I couldn't help myselfâI began to sob. And through my tears, I could see Bonamy frowning and flicking his eyelashes; then he gently nuzzled me.
“Oh Bonamy!” I sobbed. “Bonamy!”
I wanted to tell him everything: how I'd chosen him, and trained him, and trusted him, and relied on him, and loved him.
My thoughts and feelings about people are sometimes so complicated. My love for Bonamy is so simple. So blessed.
I threw my arms round his neck.
HERE AM I?” MURMURED LORD STEPHEN
“On a boat, sir.”
“I thought so.”
He didn't seem surprised; he just accepted it.
After a while, he said, “You're smiling.”
“Because you're alive. Hearing your voice.”
Lord Stephen yawned.
I held the water sponge to his lips. “Suck this!” I said.
“On a boat,” Lord Stephen said, and he yawned again.
“I'll explain. Let me heat some pottage first. You haven't eaten anything for five days.”
Lord Stephen just looked up at me. His eyes were misty.
“You were wounded,” I said. “I'm taking you home.”
He frowned slightly, as if he were trying to work out what my words meant, and then he yawned for a third time. “Peacocks,” he said. He closed his purple eyelids and drifted into sleep.
Rhys and Turold are both asleep on a pile of Persian carpets. Simona's sitting on the steps that lead up to the deck, and she keeps dabbing her eyes.â¦
We're both so raw, with all our good-byes. We'll talk tomorrow.
Early this morning, the sun rose right behind Zara. It dazzled me, and I couldn't make out any of the towers or spires.
Slowly the city shrank.
Across the water, nothing but a dark tear.
Y STONE, IT IS MY FIXED NORTHERN STAR. EVEN
when it shows me suffering and sorrow, it still eases me.
I can see Sir Mordred, Regent of England, standing on a dais, and in front of him are hundreds of knights, all wearing surcoats stitched with their shields. Dukes and earls and lords and knights. All the great men of the land.
Sir Mordred holds up a sheet of parchment. He waves it.
“My lords,” he says, and he clears his throat. “This letter comes from Sir Gawain.” Sir Mordred crosses himself. “King Arthur is dead!” he calls out in a loud voice. “Your king is dead.”
For a moment, there's silenceâthe silence of disbeliefâand then huge commotion in the hall.
“May God preserve his soul,” Sir Mordred calls out, but only the knights standing nearest to him can hear him. “He has been killed in battle by Sir Lancelot.”
The way thunder claps and heaven shakes, and the sound rolls round the sky's rim: That's how it is in the hall.
Sir Mordred waits, head bowed.
“He was my father,” he calls out, and his voice is level and somber. “I am his son.” He pauses. “His time came; his time has gone. For as long as he lived, he led us by serving us and served us by leading us. May God save his soul!”
Around Sir Mordred, men begin to call out.
“The king is dead! Long live the king!”
“May Christ the Lord guide you!”
“Mordred the king!”
How can King Arthur be dead? If it were true, my seeing stone would have shown me. And how can they think Mordred would be a just king?
Now I can see Sir Mordred and Queen Guinevere at Winchester. Her silk dress is black, threaded with spears of silver.
This man who hates Sir Lancelot, her own husband's scheming son: Guinevere can scarcely bear to look at him.
“I won't mince my words,” Sir Mordred says. “For the good of this kingdom, you and I must be of one mind. One heartâ¦and one body.”
The queen stiffens. She is very still.
“I desire you.â¦For the good of this kingdom, I will marry you.”
His father's wife.
The queen raises her eyes and looks her stepson full in the face. “You are right,” she says. “Quite right! I lament the death of the king. I lament the cause of it.”
“You are wise,” says Sir Mordred. His voice is like a newly sharpened knife.
“If we are to marry,” the queen says, “I must go to London. I must buy samite. I must talk to my dressmakers. My jewelers. A hundred things.”
Sir Mordred nods slightly.
“And linen. Cornflower blue,” says Guinevere eagerly. “A new beginning!”
“Let us fix a day,” says Sir Mordred.
Now I understand!
Now I see why Queen Guinevere told Sir Mordred he was right.
She didn't dare tell him otherwise. She wanted to win his trust, win time, escapeâ¦anywhere.
No. Not anywhere. The Tower of London. I recognize it.
Sir Mordred is standing outside the walls, and speaking to the captains of his tormenta, his ballistae and petraries and mangonels.
“I don't care what you throw at them,” he yells. “Throw everything! Dead dogs, boulders, buckets of dung, sodden logs, river mud, rotten fish, scraps of metal, paving-stones. Flatten these walls!”
A knight stands in one of the towers, and Sir Mordred's men howl at him. They're a parliament of black dogs and mongrels and curs.
“Queen Guinevere says this,” the knight calls down. “She will kill herself. Rather than marry Sir Mordred, she will plunge a knife into her own heart.”
Sir Mordred's dog-knights growl and bay and bark and howl.
Now I can see the old archbishopâthe man who crowned King Arthur at Canterburyâwith his golden staff and three priests.
“How dare you?” the archbishop demands. “How dare you pretend King Arthur is dead? You concocted that letter; you tricked all the knights. Today I have received a letter from the king.â¦” The archbishop reaches inside his cloak. “How dare you force yourself on your father's wife?”
“Enough!” snaps Sir Mordred.
“You have angered God,” the old archbishop says. “You have shamed yourself. You have disgraced the whole order of knighthood.”
“Enough, I said!” Sir Mordred shouts.
“Raise this siege or I'll curse you with book, bell, and candle.”
“Do your worst!” says Sir Mordred in a biting voice. “Whatever you do, I'll defy you.”
“I'll do what's right,” the old archbishop replies. “You're a traitor.”
“Youâ¦turbulent priest!” Sir Mordred snarls. “One more word and I'll strike off your head.”
The archbishop gathers his cloak. He turns away.
“You old fool!” Sir Mordred calls after him. “The men of England are my men. They're of one mind. With Arthur there was nothing but war. War on the heels of war. Argument! Anger! Now, there's hope. I give them hope!”
“Traitor!” the archbishop says again.
Sir Mordred whirls round to face the high walls. He looks up and bawls, “Can you hear me? I'll have Guinevere, by fair means or foul! When Arthur comes back, I'll be waiting for him.”
ODAY IS THE FEAST OF SAINT DAVID WHO WENT ON A
pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and that means it's my birthday.
“Do you know how old you are?” Simona asked me.
“Of course. Seventeen.”
“What day of the week were you born?”
“I don't know that,” I said, “but it was the first day of the month.”
“That's a good day,” Simona told me. “You'll win fame, and be clever and wise; and you love books and reading and writing.”
“The last part's true, anyhow,” I said.
“Be careful of water,” Simona warned me. “It may drown you.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
Simona's eyes widened. “Everyone knows,” she said. “My father. He was born on the first day of September.”
“How old are you, then?” I asked Simona.
“I don't know exactly. Maybe twenty-one, and I was born on a Tuesday. I will tell you a birthday secret.”
“I have six older brothers, and my parents prayed for one daughter. But when I was born I was a boy.”
“They prayed so much, they wept so much, I became a girl,” Simona said.
“You don't believe that?”
Simona smiled. “My father told me that's how much he wanted me.”