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Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland

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King of the Middle March (27 page)

BOOK: King of the Middle March
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, except that Winnie and Tom weren't naked, of course.

They were wearing long-sleeved white linen shirts, and hoses tucked into their boots, and gloves, and white veils. Close together they stood beside the covered hive, so caught up with each other and what they were doing that they didn't see me, in the middle of the orchard. I leaned into the apple-tree trunk and watched them.

The eighth day of April in the year of Our Lord 1203. Lady Anne's orchard was humming and whirring, unfolding in the sunlight. Everything looked new, each grass blade, each leaf. Around me were clumps of primroses, white violets, and I could smell the damp scent of young horsemint.

All at once Winnie giggled and pushed Tom, and ran off. Around the orchard they gamboled, Winnie squealing, Tom yelling, and then he caught her, and they threw back their heads and laughed, and he marched her back to the hive.

They were so free. So…at ease. They don't know how people tear each other to pieces. They haven't smelled death. They don't have nightmares that ride you when you sleep.

Winnie and Tom: They looked so young!

I wished I could be like them.

I wished I could just go away.

Tom was Adam and Winnie was Eve and I was the apple of the knowledge of good and evil, and I thought if only I could go away, and not trouble them with love and pain and guilt, they could stay in the orchard blind and innocent and delighted, and live forever.

“Come on, then!” said Winnie. “Let's open it!”

She and Tom pulled and lifted the hive's weather-beaten old canvas cover and at once the air around them grew hot and blurred with indignant bees.

Winnie and Tom raised their arms, pulled their veils over their faces, and stumbled towards me.

I didn't even notice the bee until I felt it sting me. On my right wrist.

I yelped, and Winnie and Tom heard me and pulled back their veils and stared at me, amazed.

“I've been stung!” I said.

Neither of them was sure it was really me. They floated around me.

“I'm not a ghost,” I said. “It's you who look like ghosts.”

“Arthur!” cried Winnie.

“Arthur!” said Tom, and he came and hugged me, and then Winnie put her arms round us both.

“I didn't know you were coming back,” Winnie said, breathless and accusing, as if it were my fault. “I thought…”

“This hurts,” I said.

“I'll pop it out!” said Winnie. “Have you got a knife, Tom?”

“I'll do it,” I said.

Winnie grasped my wrist. “I can see the black point,” she said. “Tom!”

“I'll do it myself,” I told her. I unsheathed my jackknife and scraped the blade towards the sting. The third time, it popped out.

“Sore,” said Tom.


pavilion, surrounded by hundreds of knights and bishops. Sir Kay, Sir Lucan, Sir Bedivere, Sir Dinadan, Sir Grummor Grummorson, the Bishop of Rochester, the Archbishop of Canterbury. All the great men of the kingdom loyal to him except for the three knights of the Holy Grail.

“In my dream,” he calls out, “I was dressed in cloth of gold, and all around me and under me was deep water; black as the devil's tongue, seething with serpents and slimy beasts, sea creatures with snouts and fangs.

“I woke up, crying for help, and when I slept again, I saw Gawain with many beautiful ladies and young women.

“‘I was with you when you died,' I told him. ‘But now I see you're very much alive! Who are all these ladies and young women?'

“‘All the ones I fought for while I was alive,' Sir Gawain replied. ‘They begged God to let me warn you, and they've led me to you. Don't fight Sir Mordred tomorrow, or you will be killed. You, and all your followers.'

“‘What shall I do, then?' I asked.

“‘Make a treaty with Mordred, and be as generous as you have to be,' Sir Gawain told me. ‘Offer him Cornwall here and now. If need be, offer him Kent. Offer him all England, after your death.
Buy yourself time! Within one month Sir Lancelot and his army will sail home; he will fight and kill Sir Mordred and whomsoever is loyal to him.'

“Then Sir Gawain vanished,” the king tells his knights and bishops. “I have always loved and trusted him, and I will do as Gawain says. I name Sir Bedivere and Sir Lucan to ride over to Sir Mordred and offer him terms.”

King Arthur's knights and bishops remain silent.

“Tell him I will meet him on that hilltop at noon tomorrow, each of us with fourteen men, and I'll sign a treaty with him. And you, all of you, keep watch!” the king calls out. “Mordred's as slippery as a snake. He's a traitor! If you see a sword blade flash, sound the horns and trumpets, and gallop up the hill as fast as you can. Kill Sir Mordred!”

“I don't trust my father,” Sir Mordred tells his men. “Why this sudden change of heart?”

Many of his knights murmur in agreement.

Sir Mordred looks round his pavilion. “I don't trust him!” he snaps. “He'll try to take revenge. I'll talk to him, but you keep watch, each one of you. If you see a sword blade flash, storm up the hill. Kill my father!”

Now Sir Mordred mounts his black horse, and he and fourteen of his knights canter up the sandy ridge to the top of the hill.

King Arthur and his men are waiting. They have brought a low table, and set it in the shelter of a gorse bush, and laid out beakers and jugs of wine.

Sir Mordred dismounts. He stalks towards his father. They do not embrace, or clasp hands, or touch each other at all. Both men nod.

King Arthur repeats his offer; Sir Mordred agrees to it.

“In this way,” says the king, “each of us wins. Innocent lives will not be lost. There will be peace in England.”

“Give peace in our time, O Lord,” Mordred replies.

“Then let us both put our hands to this, and sign a treaty,” King Arthur says.

Now Sir Bedivere and Sir Lucan pour wine, and knights who once were friends and rode out from Camelot on adventures together begin to talk, and smile again.

Something winks in the gorse bush. An eye.

An adder writhes out of the bush, I can see the diamonds on its back; it shrithes across the sandy soil, and bites the right foot of one of the knights.

The knight yelps. He snatches at his pommel and draws his sword to cut the adder in half. The blade flashes in the sunlight.

Down below, horns and trumpets blow. Short, sharp blasts.

I can hear thousands of men grim and shouting.

“Alas for England!” the king calls out. “Because of an adder! There's no stopping this battle now.”

Now Arthur-in-the-stone and Sir Mordred turn their backs on each other. They mount, and ride down to meet their armies, two dark breaking waves surging and scrambling and howling and heaving, seething up the hill.

My stone is grave-silent.

I can see shapes in the gloom. Mounds of arms and legs and torsos and heads. Eyes bloodshot and bulging.

Dear God! Two huge armies, one hundred thousand men, all the best men of England, and there's not one man left standing.

No! I can see King Arthur, masked in blood, standing over Sir Bedivere and Sir Lucan.

“Jesus forgive me!” mutters the king. “My friends…my knights of the Round Table…my brother, Kay…all the good men of the shires of England. There has never been so bitter a day.”

Sir Bedivere and Sir Lucan groan, too drained to reply.

“I wish I knew where that traitor was,” the king says. “I wish I knew for sure Sir Mordred was dead.”

King Arthur sighs. He rubs the blood out of his eyes and looks around him.

“There!” he says. “Can you see him, leaning on his sword? Beside that heap of dead men!”

“Sire,” groans Sir Lucan, “leave him.”

“Give me my spear,” says the king.

“He's no threat now,” Sir Lucan says. “He stands alone, and there are three of us. Sire, remember your dream.”

“My own son,” growls King Arthur, “he is evil. I have to put an end to him. Whether I die or whether I live, Sir Mordred will not escape me now.”

“God save you!” cries Sir Bedivere.

The king grasps his spear with both hands and runs straight at his son. “Traitor! You traitor!” he howls.

Sir Mordred runs at his father, his sword poised.

King Arthur drives his spear right through Sir Mordred's body, just under his shield.

Sir Mordred still comes on. He thrusts his body right up to the bur of King Arthur's spear. Gasping, he swings his sword, and the blade shears through his father's helmet.

Sir Mordred falls sideways. Spitted on his father's spear. His mouth gaping like the gateway to hell.

King Arthur collapses onto a bed of grit and mud and blood.


stop him, but then he turned on me, and we started wrestling, and he tripped and stabbed himself. I didn't kill him, but I kept feeling I did.”

Around us the finches twittered and caroled, singing that everything changes, and yet stays the same.

“We buried him in sacred ground,” I said. “The wind howled.”

Tom closed his eyes. “May God receive his soul!” he said in a solemn voice.

For a while we sat in silence on the fallen pear tree. It was quite springy. Each time one of us moved the other bounced.

“As he lived, so he died,” said Tom.

“What do you mean?”

“Impulsive and angry.”

“And violent and selfish,” I added.

“He was,” agreed Tom.

“It's still very strange without him, though,” I said. “Our father.”

“He was never much of a father to me,” Tom said. “Most of the time he ignored me. And as for you!”

“You can imagine how I felt when he appeared in Venice,” I said.

“I scarcely knew him,” said Tom. “Half the time he was away in France.”

“I met his mistress,” I said.

“You did?”

“Lady Cécile.”

Tom whistled.

“I'll tell you later. Go on!”

“Yes, half the time he was in France,” Tom continued, “and then he often stayed for days at Catmole.”

Catmole! My heart lurched.

“That manor's yours now,” said Tom.


“We'll have to talk to Lady Alice, and sort things out.” Tom smiled, but his eyes were serious.

“And Winnie?”

Tom knotted his forehead and sighed. “I know,” he said. “I mean, I don't know.”

Tom. My half-brother; my friend; my rival…

He turned round and looked at me with his bright blue eyes.

“Tom!” I said. “I wish it wasn't like this. I wish you'd come with us. On the day I was knighted, I wished you were there, you more than anybody.”

Tom nodded. “Go and talk to her now,” he said. “I know you want to, and she's so impatient that if you don't, she'll probably burst.”

“Why were you so long?” Winnie demanded.

She had exchanged her white clothing for a linen dress, forget-me-not blue, and tied her rash of red-gold hair behind her neck.

“What was so important?”

But then, without waiting for me to reply, Winnie came close.
She put her arms around me and tightened herself against me, and I could feel her shoulders and her breasts and…her whole body. She gave a long, deep sigh. Then she put one hand on each side of my head, and for a moment gazed at me with her leopard eyes.…

Her mouth was so soft. Her breath so warm. I closed my eyes. I felt like crying. Then she pulled away from me, grinning.

I realized I was out of breath. Shaking.

“There!” said Winnie in a definite voice.

“But I thought…”


“You and Tom.”

Winnie shook her head, and her hair lashed from side to side.

“I don't know!” she cried. “I just don't know!”


“I know!” She reached over and tugged at the betrothal coin hanging round my neck. “I didn't mean to.”

“No!” I said loudly. “And I didn't mean Sir William to die.”

“No!” shrieked Winnie, and she clapped her hands over her ears.

“And I didn't mean Lord Stephen to be wounded, and I didn't mean to leave the crusade and come back so soon, but we're betrothed, we've exchanged vows and I never thought—”

“Oh Arthur! Don't!” cried Winnie. “It's so awful! Can't I love you both?”

The hall at Verdon is always decorated with flowers and leaves. It's only the second week in April, but Lady Anne has already colored it with branches of furry yellow catkins and sprays of hawthorn blossom, and little pots of primroses and violets.

The five of us sat at the refectory table: Sir Walter and Lady Anne on one side, and Winnie between Tom and me on the other.

“Welcome back, Arthur!” Sir Walter began.

“Yes! Welcome! Welcome!” Lady Anne said.

“Twelve months ago…,” Sir Walter mused. “Here in this hall. We all joined hands around you, and you and Winnie broke the coin.”

“We all know that,” Winnie said rudely.

“That's quite enough!” said Lady Anne.

Sir Walter sighed.

“And you, Tom,” Sir Walter continued. “I remember you said that if Arthur didn't come back from the crusade, you'd gladly marry Winnie instead.”

“I wasn't serious, sir.”

“Half-serious,” Sir Walter replied. “Now this is a difficult situation. For you, Arthur, because you and Winnie have plighted your troth, and I know how you care for her. She said your poem to us.”

“Winnie!” I muttered.

“I wanted to,” said Winnie.

“It's difficult for you, Tom,” Sir Walter went on, “because you and Arthur are brothers and friends, and the last thing you wanted is to be disloyal to him.”

“That's right,” agreed Tom.

“And for you, Winifred, it's doubly difficult because you've exchanged vows with Arthur but realize now how much you care for Tom too…and because the decision isn't yours.”

“It is,” said Winnie. “Partly.”

“What's certain,” said Sir Walter, “is that we can't possibly decide here and now what to do. These things take time.”

Winnie groaned.

“You two boys have a great deal to do. Your father is dead. You have to divide all his possessions, and his manors at Gortanore and Catmole, and in Champagne. You have to console Lady Alice, and provide for her. It's most important you work together.”

“We're on the same side,” I said.

“I can always work with Arthur,” Tom said, smiling.

“Good!” said Sir Walter. “Well, first you must attend to all this. As you know, I suppose, your father and I never reached a full and final agreement.”

“You would have done, though,” I said. “If he'd come back.”

Sir Walter sighed.

“Who's to tell?” Lady Anne said lightly. “Who's to tell? One moment he spoke of your marrying Winnie, and the next of Winnie marrying Tom!”

“You never told me that!” cried Winnie.

“And my father never told me,” I said.

But now I remember Sir William did say something while we were on Saint Nicholas. He told me it wasn't at all certain I'd marry Winnie; he said it might be better if I married Sian instead!

So was my father tricking me? Did he allow me to exchange vows with Winnie without meaning me to marry her?

“Muddy waters!” said Sir Walter. He smiled consolingly at all three of us. “I promise you, we'll find out what's best for each of you, and best for both our families.”

Best for me…

I remember when King Arthur fell in love with Guinevere,
Merlin warned him that love can be blind. He told Arthur he could find him a wife not only beautiful but loyal.

It will only be best for me to marry Winnie if she is loyal, and loves me alone.

Like Guinevere, she's willful and impatient; and first she blows one way, then the other.

But she's still only fourteen.

“That first day we met, that first hour, we both knew…”

Before I went on our crusade, I would have been exactly like Winnie now. Impatient and feverish and anxious. I would have thought any decision far better than none.

Have I changed, then?

I know I must try to be patient even though it's painful. I must find out. My head, my heart: I'll keep asking them questions.

BOOK: King of the Middle March
8.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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