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Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland

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BOOK: King of the Middle March
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7
GLASS VENETIANS

A
T HOLT, THREE OF THE CASTLE WINDOWS HAVE BEEN
leaded and glassed, and Lord Stephen has an azure Venetian glass goblet with a twisted stem.

Here, glass is used in all kinds of ways. For jugs, tureens, drinking glasses. And for jigsaw pictures of Mary and Jesus. I've seen women wearing necklaces strung with little glass balls, pale green and violet and misty blue. They're like sea-eyes.

If you half-close your eyes, Venice might be wholly glass. Windows flashing, domes shining, water jigging and leaping as if it were plucked by sky-puppeteers with invisible silk strings.

Venetians have sallow skins. The men are golden ruffians. Even when they shave, they look unshaven, and wiry hair grows all over their bodies. The women are beautiful lionesses, with hair of two or even three different colors—tawny and bronze and copper. They're always laughing, and most of them have singed, husky voices; they speak very fast, with much more to say than time to say it in.

Their eyes are so large and liquid that at first I supposed Venetians must be gentle or even breakable. But actually, they're tough too, and self-interested and calculating.

8
HOWEVER HARD WE TRY

L
AMB-CLOUDS, AND THE SKY'S BLUE PASSAGES; AND
then my own face, rather blurred. My big ears. My eyes, wide and alert. That's all I could see to begin with.

And then, when I held up my seeing stone to the sun, this last day of June, I thought I could actually see through it. Like staring into a pond, down through the layers of water, beyond the spawn and the wrigglers.

But my stone is much, much more than a mirror or a pond. It is a world. I still keep it in the dirty old saffron cloth in which Merlin gave it to me, only now it's even dirtier, and each time I look into it I see my namesake, King Arthur, or the knights of the Round Table. His fair fellowship.

Once upon a time I thought I was Arthur-in-the-stone. Sometimes what happens to King Arthur seems to copy what happens to me, but sometimes it's the other way round. He and Ygerna, his blood-mother, have found each other, and I believe that in the end I will find mine. I've hoped the same hopes as Arthur, and feared the same fears. I've seen Arthur's knights ride out, north and south, east and west, questing for the Holy Grail, and I've seen Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere naked to one another, joyful and sorrowful, and I keep wondering what will happen if the king finds out.

My stone is telling me something, if only I can work out what.
Duty and sacrifice and honor and passion, insult and treachery: I've seen all those in my stone, and I see more all the time. From the day Merlin gave it to me, I've never gone anywhere without it.

When I stepped into our tent and looked into my stone again, the king was there. Sitting alone at the huge Round Table and staring into it.

A huge hunk of rock crystal. A hemisphere. It's too heavy for even one hundred men to lift, so Merlin, the Hooded Man, must have spirited it to Camelot. Within the crystal there are nodules and black warts, cracks, splits. There are stars and dark holes. And there's a mass of tiny threads, silver and shining, like gossamer on a misty autumn morning. It makes me think how everything in the world turns out to be connected, even if we don't realize it is at first.

King Arthur stares, and then he gives a sudden start, and looks around. He can hear a voice, but he doesn't know where it's coming from.

“Where are your knights, Arthur? Where are they all?”

A man's voice, dark with pain.

“Arthur! Your fair fellowship. Gone with the four winds. Is there no knight worthy to see the Holy Grail?”

I knew who it was the moment I heard him. King Pellam, Guardian of the Holy Grail, who was wounded by Sir Balin, pierced with the same lance that pierced Jesus through the ribs.

“Not one knight of the Round Table?” the voice demands, sorrowful and angry. “Can no man ride from here to Corbenic through this wailing world, and redeem the sin of Judas? Can no one ask the right question?”

King Arthur clenches both his fists. “What question?” he growls.

“The words that will heal me and save me from this agony,” the voice replies. “The words that will heal the suffering wasteland, and allow it to grow green again.”

Then King Pellam fell silent; my stone went blind.

I waited. I wrapped both hands around it. I stared so deeply into it that nothing else in the world existed.

The wasteland…All at once, I thought of Haket, Lord Stephen's priest. He told me all Christendom is a wasteland, a wilderness of the spirit. He said people are taking the law into their own hands and behaving not as Christians but animals.

“Until we're Christian not only in word but in deed,” he said, “how can we ever enter Jerusalem?”

But how can humans be perfect? We can't, however hard we try. So it can't be only through our own efforts that we will reach the Holy City, but also through God's grace, because He wants us to chase all the Saracens out.

9
NOTHING IS EASY

D
O YOU REALLY THINK I WANT TO BE COOPED UP IN
this stuffy tent, teaching you the ten categories?” I demanded. “I could be galloping Bonamy, or collecting clams, or oiling my armor and talking to Turold. I have to brush Lord Stephen's clothes. I could be writing.”

“I'm not stopping you,” said Bertie.

I shook my head. “You know perfectly well what Milon and Lord Stephen have told us. Four classes each week. Two for my French. Two for your learning.”

“What's the point? Milon doesn't know about quantities and qualities and all that.”

“The more you learn, the more you understand. I like learning French. I like the sound of it. One moment throaty, the next like bright birdsong.”

“You can't learn prowess,” Bertie said, bright-eyed. “Let's go outside.”

“No,” I said. “You won't work outside.”

Bertie grinned. He's got a gap between his two upper teeth. “I don't need to understand how you say something to know what it means,” he said.

“Which category stands on its own?” I asked.

“The substance,” said Bertie, screwing up his face as if he'd tasted something awful.

“Tell me a substance.”

“A sword.”

“What else?”

“I don't know. A horse. A finger.”

“Good,” I said. “What about two?”

“Two what?”

“Two fingers.”

Bertie looked at me as if I were trying to trick him. “That's a substance and a quantity,” he said cautiously.

“At last!” I exclaimed. “So what are the other categories? All the ones that can never exist on their own but must always belong to a substance.”

“I can't remember,” said Bertie. “This is so boring!”

“Then let's get it over with. Come on! Times. Activities.”

“There's no point,” said Bertie. “I'm not going to.” He stood up and tousled his hair as if he were trying to get rid of every category and judgment and substance and accident in his buzzing head. “You can't teach me anyhow. You're not a priest.”

Nothing is easy when it's new. How can I talk to the Venetians who can't speak English? How should you pitch a tent in soft sand? How do you crack a lobster? From the moment we got here, we have been faced at each turn with new difficulties.

I do like challenges, but what I haven't found out yet is how to teach Bertie. If I were Serle, I'd just shout at him. But I'm not like that. Anyhow, he's much younger than I am, and we've got to live side by side for weeks and months.

This evening, I told Lord Stephen about my mother's ring and how she secretly sent it to me. I explained how I promised Thomas, Sir William's servant, that I wouldn't tell anyone about it.

“And you kept your promise,” Lord Stephen said. “Which is more than Thomas did. He failed you. He said he'd arranged for you to meet your mother, but she never came.”

“Perhaps she doesn't want to meet me,” I said.

“Of course she does.”

“That's what I think sometimes,” I said.

“Anyhow,” said Lord Stephen, “you're quite right to tell me everything now.”

Then I showed Lord Stephen my ring.

He had to hold it very close to his eyes so he could see baby Jesus reaching out and giving His mother something…what it is, I still don't know.

“Yes,” Lord Stephen said. “Wear it, and keep it warm. Your mother cares for you. You will find her.”

10
FIGHTING–FEAR

W
HAT'S IT LIKE?” I ASKED. “FIGHTING? IN A BATTLE
?

Wido, Milon's armorer, sniffed. Then he looked round the ring of Milon's foot soldiers sitting under the sun and narrowed his eyes. “Go on then, Giff! Tell Arthur.”

Giff got to his feet and stared down at me. He smiled slightly; I think he did. He has a scar running from one corner of his mouth across his cheek and under his right ear, so it's difficult to tell.

“You've been afraid?” he inquired.

“Yes,” I said. “Sometimes.”

“'Course you have,” said Giff. “We all have. When?”

“When I had to belly out across the ice and rescue Sian. She's my sister. Well…she was.”

“Dead,” said Giff.

“No! No, it's too difficult to explain.”

“That all, then?” asked Giff. First he looked at Wido, then round the group, and I saw him wink. Suddenly everyone leaped up and howled and stepped towards me, and I gasped and put up my fists, but when I looked round again, they were just laughing.

Giff drew back his lips so I could see his teeth. “You was saying?”

“Across the ice,” I said, and I realized I was out of breath, “and once I was afraid when Alan the armorer pressed his quarterstaff
down on my windpipe. And when I wrestled with Jehan. You know, Milon's farrier.”

“Jehan,” repeated Wido. “We knew Jehan, didn't we, boys?”

“He wounded me,” I said, and I held up my left arm and showed them the long scar.

“Mad as a monkey,” said Wido.

“What happened to him?”

Wido clutched his throat with his hands, and then jerked back his head. “But you, Arthur,” he said. “You bravee!”

“Bravee!” repeated the ring of foot soldiers, and they all laughed again.

“You knight,” said Wido.

“Not yet,” I replied. “That depends on Milon.”

Wido caught the eye of another man. “Godard! I thought you'd swallowed your tongue.”

Godard advanced on me. He's not all that big, but tough and sinewy. “Fighting-fear is different,” he began, and he rubbed his right hand across his mouth. “Soon as you know there's going to be fighting, it's like a fever. Makes your skin crawl. You get the squits. Then you start trembling and it don't stop. Isn't that right, boys?”

All Milon's men were nodding. One of them looked the same age as I am. His Adam's apple was bobbing up and down.

“Your mouth's fig-dry,” Wido said.

“And the Night Hag, she tramples you,” said Giff.

Godard rubbed his hand across his mouth again. “And your fear gallops with you into the fight. You're alive! Your blood's on fire. You're afraid. Everyone's afraid. Some people show it, some don't.”

“And some are brave,” added Wido, “and some aren't.”

“Milon says you can't learn to be brave,” I said. “It's just instinct.”

“You can learn loyalty,” said Wido. “And duty. You can stick it out.”

“But when a Saracen runs at you, and he's howling?” I asked.

“That's when it counts,” Wido replied. “In the thick of it.”

“Cowards!” said Godard in disgust. “They're worse than grass snakes.”

“They should be skinned,” said Wido.

“Remember bloody Gotiller?” asked Godard.

“He did for us, all right,” said Wido. “We lost five men because of him. So after the battle we opened up his stomach and drew out his gut and wound it round a pole.”

“The Saracens are worst,” said Giff. “I've fought the Germans and the Angevins, but the Saracens are worst. Howling and wailing. Ghastly wailing.”

Godard wrapped his arms around his chest. “Saracens know about loyalty and duty, all right. Bloody infidels! They're cruel as fishhooks, and they think God is on their side.”

“Want to know what they did to a mate of mine?” Giff asked me.

The hot sun beat down, and I realized I was shivering. “What?” I asked.

“He'll find out soon enough,” Wido said.

What I'll find out is whether I'm good enough. Whether everything I know to be right—duty and loyalty and grit—is stronger than my fear once I'm actually in battle.

Not just fear. Worse than that. Yellow seizure. Battle-terror.

I've trained hard, and I trust Bonamy, and I know what I should do, but I'm still afraid.

11
ENEMIES OF GOD

T
HEY'RE KILLERS, MILON'S MEN! WIDO AND GODARD
and Giff.”

“Killers of evil,” said Lord Stephen. “That's what Saint Bernard said.”

“No, sir, you don't understand. They murdered one of their own men because he was a coward and let them down.”

Lord Stephen blinked several times. “Or because his fear made them afraid,” he said.

“I wish I hadn't talked to them.”

“Sit down!” Lord Stephen said. “Standing there like that, first on one leg, then on the other.”

“I'm sorry, sir.”

“This sun's bad enough without my having to stare right into it. Now then, Arthur! What is our crusade?”

“An act of devotion,” I replied. “A quest that requires fighting skills and can win us great honor. Awar against the enemies of God.”

“Yes, all those things,” said Lord Stephen. “We're only fighting because keeping the peace would be wrong—we're not killing for the sake of it.”

“Milon's men are,” I said.

“Look at it from their point of view,” said Lord Stephen. “They didn't choose to come. And what's in it for them? Company. Adventure. A woman or two. That's all.”

“Yes, sir.”

“As I told you at Soissons,” Lord Stephen said, “there are many reasons why men take the Cross, some noble, some not, and leaders have to make do with all sorts and conditions of men. But when we stand before God, each of us must answer for himself.”

Lord Stephen swatted away a noisy fly.

“Do you remember Salman?” I asked him.

“Of course,” said Lord Stephen. “The dying Saracen trader.”

“The way he smiled at me, and then thanked us and blessed us. I think he was ready to stand before God.”

“Not God,” Lord Stephen corrected me. “A false prophet.”

“What I can't understand is why the Saracens are such enemies of God. Oliver says they are. Count Thibaud said they are.”

“I say they are,” said Lord Stephen in a quiet, firm voice. “If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be sitting here. However, that doesn't mean we have to howl and rant and rail against them.”

“The Saracens write books about astronomy and algebra and singing,” I said. “Fustian cloth was first made in Egypt. The Venetians trade with the Saracens! And the one I met was a sweettempered man. So why are the Saracens enemies of God?”

“Because they deny Christ,” said Lord Stephen. “Because they worship Allah instead of the true God. Because they bow down to a false prophet. Because they sully the holy places in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Is that enough?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Of course, there are some good Saracens, just as there are some bad Christians.”

“My father told me about Saladin.”

“There you are. A great leader and a fine man. Now if he were here, your father would say—”

“I'm glad he's not!” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” said Lord Stephen, and he smiled gently. “Well! So am I!”

“Is it true that Saladin was a better man than King John?” I asked.

Lord Stephen closed his eyes. “Very probably,” he replied.

“The king tried to unthrone his own brother!”

Lord Stephen sighed. “Leaders often have to look in two directions at the same time,” he said.

“What do the Saracens say about us?” I asked. “Sir John told me they believe they're fighting a holy war too. A
jihad
! ”

“We have much in common,” Lord Stephen said, “but far more that separates us. They believe Jesus will come down from heaven and call on the quick and the dead to follow their religion. Islam.”

“When?”

“They believe the sun will set in the east during the Last Days. I don't know exactly what they say about us. But all your questions…I've got some good news for you.”

Then Lord Stephen told me Milon rode in while I was collecting our consignment of cheese and bread and fruit from the morning barge, and announced that if I'm ready, he will make me a knight three weeks from today. The twenty-seventh day of July.

I wish I were being knighted on the ninth day, because nine is my number. But at least twenty-seven is three times nine, and Oliver would say that's even better. I can hear his voice now. “My dear boy! It's obvious. Three times nine! One nine for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost.”

If only I could spirit Tom here and we could be knighted together. My half-brother; my best friend. If I were in battle, I'd rather have Tom alongside me than anyone else. He could beat Serle at swordplay when he was only fourteen.

But I wish he hadn't said what he did on the day Winnie and I were betrothed. About how he'll gladly marry Winnie if I don't come back from the crusade.

BOOK: King of the Middle March
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