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Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland

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BOOK: King of the Middle March
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once I saw them. Queen Guinevere standing at the window of her room, pressing her cheeks against the cold bars, and Sir Lancelot standing in the garden below, with a long ladder under his left arm, and a sword in his right hand in case anyone is lying in wait for him.

The moon is creamy and soft, and the jewels on the queen's dress wink; Sir Lancelot's sword flashes.

“I will!” says Sir Lancelot under his breath. “I can!”

Guinevere draws in her breath. “You cannot!” she says in a low voice. “I wish you could, just as much as you do.”

“How much? How much do you wish I could?”

“With my heart.”

“Then I will!” Sir Lancelot says hoarsely. “I'll show you how strong your love makes me.”

Now Sir Lancelot sets up the ladder under the queen's window. And now he sheathes his sword and climbs the ladder.

“No!” says the queen.

Sir Lancelot grabs two of the thick iron window bars. With all his strength he pulls. I can see his nostrils flaring. He wrenches the bars right out of the stone walls.

“You're cut!” cries the queen. “Let me see.” She reaches out and takes Lancelot's left hand. “To the bone,” she whispers.

“To the heart, my lady,” Sir Lancelot replies.

Now Sir Lancelot grasps the third bar with his right hand, and stands on the topmost rung. With a yelp, he half-springs, half-hauls himself into the queen's candlelit chamber.

Queen Guinevere and King Arthur's most trusted knight step into each other's arms.

“Let me bind your wound,” murmurs the queen.

“I've known worse,” Sir Lancelot says. “Men who fight expect to get wounded.”

He brings the queen close again.

“No knight is as strong as you,” the queen whispers. “And you know how a strong man excites a woman's love. Sit here, and I will dress your wound.”

Now Guinevere finds a white silk shift so fine you could crumple it up and conceal it in your fist. She puts the hem between her teeth, and tears a strip to wrap round Lancelot's left hand.

“When I was a boy,” Sir Lancelot says, “I was brought up by the Lady of the Lake, and I longed to be a knight.

“‘Are you so sure?' she asked me. ‘Do you know what being a knight means?'

“‘I know some men are worthy because of the qualities of the body and some because of the qualities of the heart,' I replied.

“‘What's the difference?' the Lady of the Lake asked me.

“‘Some people come out of their mother's wombs big-boned or energetic or handsome, and some do not,' I told her. ‘If a man is slight or lacks stamina, he can't do anything about it. But any man can acquire the qualities of the heart.'

“‘And what are they?' the Lady of the Lake asked me.

“‘Manners. Tact. Restraint. Loyalty and generosity.'”

Queen Guinevere wraps both arms round Sir Lancelot. “Of the body…,” she whispers. “Of the heart…You have both, my lord. How did the Lady of the Lake answer you?”

“She said just wanting to be a knight didn't mean it was right. She told me that a knight has responsibilities. He must be openminded and open-handed, and generous to people in his care, especially the needy; he must give thieves and murderers no quarter; a knight must protect Holy Church against evildoers and infidels.”

“Has there ever been a man with such qualities?” asks Guinevere, smiling.

“That's what I asked the Lady of the Lake, and she told me a good many names. She said that so long as these responsibilities were my true aims, I would be worthy to be a knight. And she said a knight must never by his own actions dishonor the order of knighthood. A knight should fear shame more than death.”

Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere gaze at one another.

“There is no shame between us,” Sir Lancelot says, “in what we say or what we do. Our love is pure.”

“For as long as it is ours and ours alone,” the queen replies, “and we do not hurt or dishonor the king.”

“For as long,” says Sir Lancelot, “as no one poisons it with jealousy or with malice.”

“I love you, Lancelot,” Guinevere says. “But I am Arthur's queen.”

“My nightingale!” Sir Lancelot says hoarsely.

The queen says nothing. Her heart is hammering. It is hammering.



Instead of the food-barge, a messenger sailed over from Venice with a gift for Lord Stephen. A wooden box the size of a nosebag, tied up with ribbons of many colors.

When Lord Stephen opened his box, it was stuffed with rotten stinking fish guts, goggle-eyed and gaping-mouthed. Fish guts, fish tails, and a mess of bones.

Lord Stephen recoiled, and the messenger held out an octavo of parchment.

“Read it!” Lord Stephen snapped at me.

Grand Councillors of Venice to Lord Stephen de Holt and Milon de Provins on the Feast of Saint Andrew of Jerusalem

We sign and seal agreement with you. We make two hundred ships ready for Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. We feast you with your squires.

You? You sign and seal agreement with us. You promise pay us eighty-five thousand silver marks. More, you eat our food, you drink wine ale each day.

You are no good partners, we have no faith in you. Your words are worth fish heads!

When you pay us?

Written on Rialto


Lord Stephen clapped his hands. “Saddle Stupendous!” he told me. “I'm riding over to see Milon.”



To begin with, I wasn't sure what it would be about, but the words “catching fever” kept coming back into my head. I started to think about Winnie, and what Wido and Milon's men told me about fighting; and that's when I sharpened this quill.

Blazing hair and tawny eye! Freckle-face!
Winnie, no sooner do I think of you
Than I burn, I freeze, my heart starts to race.

That first day we met, that first hour, we both knew.
You've plighted your troth, and I'm your true believer,
So why am I anxious that you'll be true?

Men say fighting is like catching fever.
You shiver and sweat, you glory, you curse,
And beg for mercy from God, our Fate-Weaver.

That's just to begin with. It all gets worse.
You get the squits, your smile's a grimace,
And yet you're more alive than anywhere else.

Love-sickness and battle-fear: Are they the same?
Both painful joy, and both such joyful pain.

I would like Winnie to see my song, but I don't know whether there will ever be a chance to send it to her.



“Nothing,” said Rhys.


“The colors of horses.”

“Go on, then.”

So Rhys whistled-and-sang:

“What are you called?

What's your name, squire?

Hey you! Misfitten?
Me? I'm Flea-Bitten!”

“Chestnut-on-Fire,” I said. “I like that. The first time I saw Bonamy, his coat flashed like a horse chestnut breaking out of its shell. Anyhow, what are you doing?”

“What does it look like?” Rhys replied. “Stupendous's bridle has come to bits.”

“And, by the look of it, his bit's come to rollers and keys and rings and cheek-pieces!”

Rhys grinned.

“What about Bonamy's wart—just above his left fetlock?”

“Nothing serious,” said Rhys. “I'm keeping an eye on it, see.” He looked up at the swirling sky. “Rain!” he said. “The first spot.”

When I went back to our tent, Lord Stephen had still not come back from Milon's camp—his second visit there in two days—and it was too damp to air his clothes, so I lay on my back and began to think about Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.

Can it be true that their love is blameless?

Guinevere is married to King Arthur.

The truth always rises to the surface. People will find out, and then there will be a great deal of bitterness and pain.

Overhead, the canvas darkened and gulped, and I remembered how the king felt when he first saw Guinevere, shaken and yet strong, the same as I feel when I look at Winnie.

Merlin told Arthur that he was love-blind. “Don't say I haven't warned you,” he said. “If you were not so deeply in love, I could find you a wife both beautiful and loyal.”

I think the king still needs Merlin, and I do too. The last time I saw him was one day in May, when he appeared at Holt and I told him how I was between my squire-self and my knight-self. At the crossing-places…

“On a quest,” Merlin replied, “is there anywhere else to be?”

But then he disappeared. That's just like Merlin.

I still don't completely believe he has left this world. He knows magic. He leaped the salmon-leap. Forty-seven feet! And once he just vanished on the top of Tumber Hill. I half-believe I will see Merlin again.

It's only two weeks now until Milon knights me, and before that I want to think more about what it really means, and how things will change when I'm a knight. I'd just started when Bertie stuck his head through the tent flap.

“Come on!” he exclaimed.


“The Rialto. We can go on the food-barge.”

“I can't.”

“You can!”

“Not without asking Lord Stephen.”

“Come on!” said Bertie enthusiastically.

I don't know why—maybe it was Bertie's grin; in any case, I jumped up, though I knew it was wrong. “Come on then!” I said.

“Really?” shouted Bertie.

The two of us ran down to the empty food-barge, which was just about to go back to Venice.

As soon as the oarsmen pulled us out from the dock, Bertie stood up and yelled, “Saint Nicholas is a prison, and we've escaped!”

“What happens to prisoners when they're recaptured?” I asked.

“I don't care!” said Bertie, and he stuck out his jaw. “Now tell me about your mother!”

So I did. I told Bertie her name is Mair and I still haven't been able to meet her.

“Is that what you meant when you said you couldn't bring her back to life again?” he asked.

“Yes! She's a poor village woman, and she was married, and my father used her. But it's even worse than that. I've found out that
Emrys, my mother's husband, openly accused my father in church, and soon after that, Emrys disappeared.”

Bertie gave a sharp whistle.

“I was taken away from my mother, and sent to foster parents,” I told him.

“So you could be a page?”

“No, I was just two days old. To get me out of the way, so my father could behave as if nothing had happened. He must have been afraid my mother would tell me.”

“But you did find out,” Bertie said.

“Not until two years ago,” I said, “and Sir William has warned me against trying to meet my mother. He's dangerous. I think he murdered Emrys—and he knows what would happen if the truth comes out. He would go to the gallows.”

“I'd try to meet her anyhow,” Bertie said.

“I have tried,” I said, “and Lord Stephen has been helping me. My mother entrusted this ring to two of my father's servants, Thomas and Maggot, to give to me. Then, when I promised them favors, they told me they'd actually arranged for me to meet her.”

“But you said you hadn't.”

“I woke up so excited on the day we were going to meet. I did a handstand and called out the whole alphabet backwards while I kicked my legs in the air.”

“What happened?”

“Lord Stephen and I rode to the meeting place. The Green Trunk. A huge old fallen elm, wrapped in dusty ivy. We waited and waited. All afternoon. We waited.…”

Bertie screwed up his eyes and shook his head.

“Maggot said my mother was ill, but she and Thomas are untrustworthy. They're in my father's pay, and they probably never even told my mother about meeting me, and how it matters more to me than anything in the world. But sometimes I'm afraid she doesn't want to meet me.”

“But she sent you the ring,” said Bertie. “She must love you. Can't you just go and find her yourself?”

“That's what I asked Lord Stephen, and he said he dreaded to think what would happen if Sir William found out we were going behind his back.”

“Why? What could he do?”

“I don't know. Something to my mother. I don't want to put her in any danger,” I said. “I never thought it would be this difficult.”

“You're lucky, all the same,” Bertie said. “At least you've got a mother to find. I won't see my mother until I die.”


like a hound than a human. He ran to and fro, put his nose into this and that, yelped with excitement; it wouldn't have surprised me if he'd lifted a leg.

“Come on!” I said.

“Which way?”

“I don't know. Let's head north.”


“Because then we can head south later on, and find our way back to the boat.”

“You're always working things out,” Bertie said.

But walking north in Venice isn't as easy as all that. The streets and passages keep swerving and turning to avoid all the canals that lace the city the way our bodies are tangled with veins and arteries. Some come to dead ends, some cross stone bridges, and some are so narrow, people can reach out from second—and third-story windows on either side and touch fingertips. In them, it's gloomy and impossible to tell whether one is heading north or east or west or even back south again.

After a while, though, Bertie and I came to a
—a kind of square space surrounded by buildings—where there's a market.
In the back streets, it's so quiet you can hear the echoes of voices and footsteps, the swishing of water. But the
was noisy and packed with people.

One stall was like a small open-sided tent made of rugs decorated with crimson-and-sepia dragons and turquoise peacocks, and a phoenix perched above swirling orange flames, and all kinds of other beasts. Three dark-skinned traders were sitting on stools inside it.

Bertie and I were staring at this stall when someone clamped his hand on my right shoulder.

When I turned round, I found myself looking up into the tanned face of Silvano, the Master Shipwright.

“Artù?” he said. “Yes. You Artù.”

“Yes. I am.”

“Where is Lord Stephen?”

“Not here,” I said nervously.

“Ah!” said Silvano. “Money! He get money?”

“I don't know,” I replied. “Soon. Very soon.”

“Who he?” the shipwright asked.

“Bertie,” I said. “Bertrand de Sully. Milon de Provins's squire.”

“How old?”

“Thirteen,” said Bertie.

“Not!” said Silvano, laughing. “Nine-thirteen. Ten-thirteen.”

Bertie scowled. “I said thirteen,” he repeated.

“This stall,” I said. “It's wonderful.”

said Silvano. “Saracen carpets.”

“Saracens!” squeaked Bertie. “You mean…like we're going to fight?”

Silvano shook his head. “Traders! Not fighting men.”

The three traders stood up and stepped out of the stall. Hot as it was, they were all wearing gowns that came down to their wrists and ankles, and their faces were even darker than the darkest Venetians'. Their watchful eyes reminded me of the gentle trader I talked to in Coucy. But they weren't wearing skullcaps, and the woman's hair was covered with a kind of wimple.

“But they're Saracens,” said Bertie.

“Man and wifeman and brother,” said the shipwright. “Old friends! Saracens trade in Venice with no trouble.…”

“And in Champagne,” I added.

“I didn't know that,” said Bertie.

“And Venetians trade in Damascus,” Silvano added. “In Aleppo and Amman. We pay tax for full security. Venetians trade much in Egypt. Very important.” Then he stepped forward and greeted the traders—giving each man a handclasp, and bowing slightly to the woman.

“They ask where you come from,” the shipwright said.

“England,” I said.

Silvano translated, and one of the traders clutched his neck, and all four of them laughed.

“He says he has seen a map,” the shipwright said. “A map of your country across the Sea of Darkness, and it looks like an ostrich's head.”

“What's an ostrich?” Bertie and I asked at the same time.

The Saracen woman put her hand over her mouth in surprise; then she pointed to an absurd-looking bird decorating one of the rugs, and the four of them laughed again.

I'd never seen a map of England. I didn't know what to say.

“I'm French and English,” Bertie announced. “Tell them that.” Hearing this, the traders laughed again and pointed out an animal on another rug that was half-bird and half-beast.

“They say your skin is so white, it is almost blue,” Silvano told Bertie.

“It's not,” Bertie protested. “It's they who look strange, not us.”

“Where do they come from,” I asked, “and what are they selling?”

“Alexandria,” replied the shipwright. And then, seeing my blank face, “Egypt! They sell many. Pepper and ginger, cinnamon and mace. Sponges. Perfumes.” Silvano smiled. “Perfumes for my daughter! They sell gold.”

“Gold!” exclaimed Bertie. “Let's see.”

“Traders say they tell your fortune,” Silvano told me.


“Your hand.”

“No thanks,” I said. “I mean, I want to find out for myself.”

“I will!” said Bertie, sticking out his right hand. “Tell mine!”

One of the traders held Bertie's little wrist. He stared at his palm, and suddenly I was aware of his silence, the quiet gaze of the others, and the hubbub of the market around us.

“What does it say?” asked Bertie.

“Nothing,” Silvano said. “He says it tells nothing.”

“What do you mean—nothing? Why won't he tell me?”

The Saracen shrugged.

“Does it say I'll die?”

“We all die,” Silvano replied.

“I mean…,” Bertie began, but then he faltered. “You know what I mean.”

The trader looked levelly at Bertie, but then his expression softened, and for a moment I thought he was going to embrace him. But instead he said something very quietly.

“Bertie,” Silvano said, “he says he can tell you nothing you do not know yourself.”

In one corner of the
someone began to bang a drum. Thump. Double-thump. Thump. Double-thump.

Then I saw four monks, carrying a roughly hewn cross, and a fifth swinging an incense burner; whenever they paused, the stallholders rushed forward to kiss the cross, and the monks were advancing towards us.

Baciate! Baciate il crocifisso!
Kiss the cross.”

The traders screwed up their faces, and so did I, at the stink of the incense; the people around us yelled, and the traders yelled back at them.

“They say incense is made from excrement,” the shipwright told us. “Excrement of Patriarch in Constantinople, and excrement of other Christian priests. All Saracens know that!”

“They can't say that!” I exclaimed. “Why do you let them?”

But after yelling and jeering at the Saracen traders, the crowd moved on, following the priests, shouting,
“Baciate! Baciate il crocifisso!”
The traders shrugged, then grinned at the shipwright.

“Each day!” Silvano told us. “They say same thing happen each day. Christians never learn.”

“Why should they think they're superior?” I protested. “They worship a false prophet.”

Silvano smiled and put his large hand on my right shoulder again. “For traders,” he said, “trade is most important.”

“But that's wrong,” said Bertie.

One of the traders stepped forward and gave me a handclasp.

“He says the prophet Muhammad…he says was a trader,” Silvano told me. “Oversea.”

And when I looked into the trader's dark eyes, I saw they were dancing.

“He says, glory to God! May the Lord of the Universe protect you both,” the shipwright said.

On our way back, I asked Bertie about his palm, and why he was afraid.

“I'm not afraid.”

“No, but…you asked about dying.”

Bertie reached over the side of the barge and trailed his hand in the water.

“Everyone's afraid of dying,” I said. “I am.”

Bertie rinsed his hand; he purified it. “This is the third time my fortune has been told,” he said in a flat voice. “The first man said I would never live to grow old. The woman at Soissons Fair told me I would die before I was a man.”

BOOK: King of the Middle March
9.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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