Read King of the Middle March Online
Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland
UR ARMORER WAS WAITING FOR ME. AS I RODE BACK
after exercising Bonamy, he met me a full furlong outside camp.
“What's wrong?” I asked.
Turold's face looked more cracked and crumpled than ever. Like a piece of pigskin parchment that hasn't been properly stretched or scraped.
“Lord Stephen's upset. Very angry.”
“He's not,” I replied. “He understands. Bertie got beaten, but Lord Stephen said I was spreading my wings because I was about to be knighted; he said when I'm a knight I'll have to be responsible all the time, not just some of the time.”
Patient Turold listened to me. Then he opened his eyes wide, and his forehead was crisscrossed with wrinkles. “Not that,” he said. “Visitors!” He jammed his right fist into the socket of his left hand, and then twisted it.
But the armorer just turned his broad back and started to trudge down the track towards our camp.
“Tell me!” I called out.
Turold looked over his shoulder without breaking his step. “That's not my place,” he said gruffly. “You'll see.”
The moment I lifted our tent flap, I did see.
Sir William. My father.
And my foster brother Serle. Lounging on my bed.
And a woman, a lady, whom I've never seen before. The three of them, and Lord Stephen sitting on his stool, blinking and almost as blind as a mole.
How long did I stare at them before I stepped in? No longer than it takes to breathe in and out again. But it seemed as long as half my life.
“S-ss-sir,” I stammered, and I got down on my right knee.
“Where have you been?” boomed Sir William.
“Sowing your wild oats, I suppose.”
“Yes, sir. I mean: No, sir.”
“Make up your mind!”
“Only fools open their mouths before they know what to say.”
“I didn't know you were coming, sir.”
“Of course you didn't!” my father said. “We scarcely knew ourselves, did we, Serle? Come on! Get up!” My father reached out, but instead of giving me a helping hand, he gave me a push, and I staggered sideways and fell right over Serle.
“Mind yourself!” shouted Serle.
Sir William roared with laughter. “Got you!” he said. “Keep your wits about you, Arthur.”
When I scrambled to my feet, I looked at Lord Stephen. Blinking furiously, he stood up and knitted his stubby fingers over his stomach, as he always does when he is trying to compose himself.
“Arthur,” he said in a level voice, “this is Lady CÃ©cile.”
Sir William grunted.
I bowed to Lady CÃ©cile. She has bright blue eyes, and very fair skin, and the way she looks and moves is quite stately, like a queen almost.
“Is Tom here as well, sir?” I asked.
My father wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and shook his head.
“You thought wrong,” said Sir William. “I need him at home to manage Gortanore and Catmole with Lady Alice.”
He stared at me with his glittering right eye. He looked down. I followed his gaze and then I realized.
“What,” he barked, “is that ring?”
I covered my right hand with my left hand. I went hot. I went cold. I felt breathless.
“You heard me.”
“Show me, I said.” Sir William lurched towards me and grabbed me by the wrists and wrenched my hands apart. Then he seized my ring finger and bent it back and glared at the ring.
A mother, sweet and mild, with her baby son in her arms, reaching out, offering her something. Her son, safe from all the suffering in this world. My ring! My mother's ring!
“I know that ring!” Sir William growled. “It's mine!”
“No, sir. It was a gift.”
“How dare you?” stormed Sir William.
Then he dragged the ring off my fourth finger.
“Please, sir! Please!” I panted. “No! Please!”
I could hear Lord Stephen calling, “Sir William! No!” and Lady CÃ©cile crying, “William! William!”
It was no use.
He strode out of the tent, and down across the beach, and Lord Stephen and I followed him.
“Man!” called Lord Stephen, and he was having to trot to keep up. “Come to your senses! This is your son. Your son.”
“Sir! Please, sir!” I kept clutching Sir William's arm, but he took no notice, and it made no difference.
“Your son!” Lord Stephen shouted. “Stop!”
But Sir William stepped right into the water. He drew back his arm. He hurled my ring as far out into the waves as he could.
My shining promise. My ring that warmed to my mother's blood, and warmed to mine. She sent it to me, and it has been my hope. Leading me. Leading me towards her. My father has thrown it away.
HREE TIMES SINCE THEY ARRIVED, THE SUN HAS
snarled and stained the western sky with blood, and still Sir William is behaving as if nothing has happened.
In the half-dark, each wave looks like the Green Trunk. The salt water gathers, it breaks, it sobs. In the half-dark and the dark I have stood where Sir William threw away my ring.
My mother! Each time I close my eyes I can see her, but she will not show me her face.
Before, I hated my father for what he has done to my mother, and the foul way he treats Lady Alice. Now, I hope the earth will open under him and close over him; I hope the sea will swallow him.
Lord Stephen knows how I feel.
“Bitterness is like poison,” he warned me. “Your feelings won't harm Sir William. But they will harm you.”
“Now, remember! In only ten days, Milon is going to knight you.”
All the same, I know Lord Stephen is very troubled too.
What I didn't know to begin with is that Serle has brought Tanwen and their son, Kester, with him. They were down at the food-barge when I rode back to camp yesterday.
I'm pleased for Tanwen because she loves Serle, and for us
because he's not so mean and sharp-tongued in her company. I like her, anyhow. But all the same, Serle shouldn't have brought her. She is Lady Judith's chamber-servant, and she didn't dare tell Lady Judith she was leaving. She just hurried out of Holt early one morning carrying Kester on her back.
Lord Stephen is very upset about this, and Sir John will be angry as well because Tanwen and Serle can never marry. She's only a servant and has no parents or property.
Kester was born on the ninth day of May. So he's two years and two months and two weeks old. With his dark hair and dark eyes and funny, pointed chin, he looks much more like Tanwen than Serle, and that's a good thing. When he laughs, it's a mixture of chuckles and snorts.
Tanwen has told me much more news than Serle, and what's most important is the news about Gatty. I mean, about her father, Hum, and about Lankin.
Soon after we rode out of the March, Hum had pains in his stomach and lost his appetite, and then he died. Lankin came to his funeral.
“It was the first time he'd come out of his hut all year,” Tanwen told me, “and his hair had grown down to his shoulders. The stump of his right wrist was all purple and puffy. In the middle of the service, Lankin bawled out: âScum! The filthy liar! He'll rot in hell for ten thousand years.'”
“Well! Hum lied about him in the manor court, didn't he?” Tanwen said. “Anyhow, Gatty can never be betrothed to Jankin now. Not now his father has dishonored hers.”
Later, I asked Serle what would happen to Gatty, with her mother and her father both dead, and only her grandmother left, lying like a corpse in their cottage.
Serle stared at me, and his thin lips curled. “Well, Arthur, seeing as you're not there to look after her yourselfâ¦”
Two years ago, I would have been provoked. But not now.
“â¦Sir John's asked Oliver to keep an eye on her. The strange thing is that, since Hum died, Gatty has started to sing.”
“What do you mean?”
“She sings all day long. Sad songs. Happy songs. No one has taught them to her. Oliver says it's a little March miracle.”
Another thing I've found out is that Lady CÃ©cile is Sir William's mistress.
I remember Sir John did tell me Sir William was away from home half the time, visiting his manor in Champagne; and I think he said he also visited a lady there. But it was all so far away then.
Lady CÃ©cile is French, and firm and kind, and treats everyone as if they were her children, even Sir William. She's rather top-heavy, and the way she gathers Kester to her, you'd think he might suffocate. But he crows and chortles, and seems to like it, and evidently Sir William does too.
I can't understand why Lady CÃ©cile is fond of my father. How can she be? I quite like her, but seeing her and Sir William together makes me think of Lady Alice.
Her curl dancing out from under her wimple. Her orange cloak. Our weekly French lessons and laughter. And the way she's helped me try to meet my mother.
“Sir William shouts at Lady Alice,” Tom told me once, “and sometimes he thrashes her, but he still worships her.”
Grace told me Lady Alice often cries when Sir William is away in Champagne. She has to do all the lady's work and half the lord's as well, figuring the accounts and managing the duties on the two manors. She goes to bed tired and wakes up tired, and that makes her cry again.
Sir William and Lady CÃ©cile have pitched their tent on the other side of the one Rhys and Turold share. I think they dishonor Lady Alice in the way that Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot dishonor King Arthur.
Sir William is a one-eyed, silvery, bristling wild boar. He may be a murderer. He used my mother and then he threw her away.
My ring! Our unending ringâ¦
OW! FIVE FULL DAYS AFTER HE RODE IN, MY FATHER
has given me a letter from Winnie.
Or rather, he left the letter with Lord Stephen before he and Serle rode out of camp to have a proper look at Saint Nicholas. He's already impatient at the delay in launching the crusade, and keeps grumbling.
As I unrolled Winnie's letter, I began to tremble.
Winnie to Arthur this fifth day of June
To my betrothed
It is five weeks since you gave me my ring but it seems more like five months, and Sir William says it will be at least ten weeks longer before he hands you this letter.
A singer came to Verdon. He sang:
“God, help the pilgrim!
I tremble for him
For the Saracens are treacherous.”
I am not in the
content that you will be away for two years, or worse.
When Sir William rode over to talk to my father again about terms for our marriage, he brought Tom with him, and we went hunting with my father's hawks. My father says Sir William is very difficult and bad-tempered. He says now we can't settle all the terms until Sir William comes home from the crusade.
It has taken me all morning to write this letter.
My mother sends you
une fleur de souvenance
âand so do I.
I do not know whether any saints protect crusaders against the Saracens, but may Saint Boniface save you from Germans and Flemings, and Saint Clotilda save you from the murderous French. Do you think about me?
BY YOUR LOVING AND IMPATIENT WINNIE
When Sir William returned, I told him I had read Winnie's letter, and he sniffed loudly.
“Sir Walter may seem like a decent man, but he's a devil. If he doesn't agree to my terms, he can stick his sweet daughter in a nunnery.”
“We're betrothed, sir,” I said.
“I told you,” Sir William barked, “I only agreed to your betrothal because you were going on this bloody crusade. But that
doesn't mean you'll marry her. Not unless Sir Walter and I agree to terms.”
“I love her, sir.”
Sir William snorted. “Quite frankly, it would be better if you married Sian.”
“Sian!” I yelped. “She's my sister.”
“Well, my foster sister.”
“Don't argue with me!” Sir William said. He rubbed his blind eye. “Love her! What do you know about love?”
I looked at the ground. I thought of my mother.
“Now then!” said Sir William. “Are you ready?”
“What for, sir?”
“What do you think?” Sir William bellowed. “The crusade! If we're not on our way soon, the French will fry the Flemings or the Germans will juice the Italians. Mark my words! There are squabbles and fistfights all the way down the island.”
“The Marquis de Montferrat still hasn't arrived, sir,” I said.
“I know that,” Sir William replied.
“And Lord Stephen says we can't pay the Venetians. We haven't got anything like eighty-five thousand marks.”
“The Venetians will make a deal,” my father said. “They'll have to.”
“They sent reminders to Lord Stephen and Milon,” I said. “Nasty ones.”
“Milon,” Sir William said. “I've met this Milon at last. Good man. Strong as a mule.”
“He says I've arrived just in time.”
“He's knighting you next Friday.”
“You didn't even tell me.”
“I was going to, sir.”
“And you a knight before Tom!”
“I wish he were here, sir.”
“I'm glad he's not,” Sir William barked. “Tom's exactly where he should be. But you, Arthur, you're glad I've arrived in time to see you dubbed a knight. Aren't you?”