Read King of the Middle March Online

Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland

Tags: #fiction

King of the Middle March (8 page)

BOOK: King of the Middle March
7.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Round Table, and I recognize him. Perceval. I haven't seen him since he stole Blanchefleur's emerald ring, and eight kisses. He wasn't knighted then.

“Sir Perceval,” King Arthur says. “Tell us a wonder, and then we can feast.”

Perceval opens his eyes wide. “This world is a wonder,” he replies.

“Spare us!” says Queen Guinevere.

“Just whet our appetites!” the king says.

Sir Perceval scratches the back of his right ear. “Well, I did hear something last night. I was staying at a new monastery, and after supper the abbot took me to his lodgings. We drank sweet yellow wine and that unloosed our tongues all right.

“‘Not far from here,' the abbot told me, ‘there's an inn called the Stork because once a guest stood on a table and chalked a stork high up on the wall. It had a long beak and huge wings and stiff legs.'

“‘What's so strange about that?' I asked. ‘When I was a boy and lived in a cottage with my mother, we drew birds and animals all over our walls.'

“The abbot sipped some more yellow wine, and swilled it around his mouth.

“‘Next morning,' he said, ‘the guest went on his way. But that
same evening the stork flew down from the wall! It flapped its huge wings, and flew out of the door and three times round the inn. Then it came back in, and flapped up into the wall.'

“‘You mean…'

“‘I do,' said the abbot. ‘The stork became nothing but a chalk drawing again. Well, word of this wonder flew like the wind, and people were soon flocking to the inn. The stork never disappointed them. Each evening it came down from the wall and flew round the inn three times. And the innkeeper sold so much food and drink that he soon became extremely rich.'

“‘Who was this guest who chalked the stork on the wall?' I asked the abbot.

“‘Ah! I was coming to that. One day he returned to the inn, and as you can imagine, the innkeeper treated him like a king. The guest smiled, and he told the innkeeper to honor God by always showing generosity to each of his visitors. Then he snapped his fingers at his chalk drawing, and the stork came down from the wall and the guest mounted it. Away they flew, and neither of them was ever seen again.'”

Queen Guinevere claps her hands.

“A wonder!” King Arthur calls out.

“Was he a holy man?” asks Sir Perceval. “A saint? An angel? No one knows who the guest at the inn was. Anyhow, the abbot told me that the innkeeper was always generous to his visitors. And not only that. With all the money he'd made, he founded a new monastery—the monastery where I stayed last night. He paid for every stick and stone of it.”

“Amen,” says King Arthur, and he points at his trumpeter. “Let the feast begin!”


Doge to Lord Geoffrey de Villehardouin and Milon and our other leaders.

Doge Enrico Dandolo of Venice to Lord Geoffrey de Villehardouin and the French envoys on the Feast of Saint Lawrence the Martyr

You break solemn agreement, you bleed us. You do not pay for two hundred ships. You eat our bread meat fish fruit, each day you drink our wine ale water. You ignore letters from Grand Councillors.

Now you envoys choose. In next seven days you pay eighty-five thousand silver marks of Cologne, or we cut off all supplies. No barges. No food. No water.

This is last warning.

Written on the Rialto, with Venice lifeblood


This letter was like a spark that set light to all the impatience and frustration that has been building up during the past seven weeks.

I was washing Bonamy in the sea, and Serle was nearby, jumping
Kester over the waves. Then I heard shouting and saw nine men running along the ridge. I mounted Bonamy and rode him bareback across the strand.

The men were charging down to the food-barge, and one man rushed at the quartermaster and held a knife to his throat while the others loaded themselves with as much food as they could carry. Dead chickens shoved inside their bulging tunics! Loaves of bread stuffed into their sleeves! Strings of sausages knotted round their waists!

Away they waddled. The quartermaster was unable to do anything about it.

So was I. I know I'm a knight and I've sworn to oppose evil and defend the helpless, but what could I do? I'm not like Sir Erec or Sir Lancelot. I wasn't even armed, and I can't fight nine men at the same time.

Serle came in after riding halfway down the island, and he says there has been trouble in almost every camp.

“Everyone's trying to save their own skins,” he said.

“They won't save themselves by looting the food-barge,” I said.

“No,” said Serle. “The two ringleaders have lost their left hands as examples to their camps.”

I screwed up my eyes, and thought of Lankin at Caldicot, and how he lost his right hand. “Why left?” I asked.

“So they can still fight the Saracens.”

Serle and I were interrupted by Lord Stephen and Sir William, and before long the four of us walked out across the strand and along the water's edge in the moonlight. Four knights!

“It's the Doge's fault for threatening us,” said Serle.

“He has waited a long time,” Lord Stephen said. “Seven weeks.”

“Why can't he wait a week or two longer?”

Sir William sighed noisily. “He knows he'll have to, and he knows in the end he'll have to make a bargain. He's playing a hard game, that's all. Quite right too!”

“But when people start to take the law into their own hands,” I said, “and riot and thieve…”

“The Doge has probably counted on all that,” Lord Stephen replied. “It increases the pressure on our leaders.”

“Bloody fools!” Sir William exclaimed. “The lot of them! Acting as if the world's coming to an end. Dandolo doesn't mean it. If he starves us all to death, who's going to pay him?”

“I thought the Venetians were meant to be our friends,” said Serle.

Sir William sniffed, and spat into the sand.

“They're our partners,” Lord Stephen replied patiently. “We have our aims, and they have theirs.”



For seven days our army has been tearing itself apart. All over the island there were fistfights and cudgelings, insults flying, petty thefts. A few men went off on their own, wandering along the foreshore; some got down on their knees, praying and singing.

No wonder the Doge doesn't want us on the Rialto. This ragged army of twelve thousand men, short of food and drink, starved of women, miles from home.

But this afternoon, on this fifteenth day of August, our new leader Marquis Boniface de Montferrat arrived in Venice at last.

His boat was awash with flowers and he was escorted by four Venetian councillors. Like us, they believe the marquis is the answer to their prayers.

A huge crowd gathered to greet him, and as soon as he stepped ashore, the marquis spoke to us.

“I am very glad to be here,” he said. “At last! Thank you for being so patient!”

We all laughed. And something, something anxious, dissolved inside me.

Marquis Boniface glanced to left and right, smiling and nodding, and for a moment I thought he was looking me in the eye. He has quite long black hair, and a well-trimmed moustache and beard.

“I will meet the Doge tomorrow,” the marquis announced, and his eyes flashed. “And I promise you, you men—God's knights! God's squires! God's men!—I will make a deal with him.”

At this, many people clapped and cheered, and I saw Serle holding Kester right up so that he could see the marquis.

“In the name of God, and the name of good sense, I will make a deal,” the marquis repeated. “An army can't fight on an empty stomach. An army must have ships.”

Around me, everyone growled in approval.

“Tomorrow,” the marquis called out, “I will take our six envoys to press our case. At my second meeting with the Doge, I will have with me not only Cardinal Capuano but the oldest knight and youngest knight in this entire army. I've instructed my squires to ride into each camp and seek them out. I will strike the best possible bargain.” The marquis tightened his right hand into a fist and punched his breastbone. “In the meantime,” he called out, “let it be clear I will accept no indiscipline. None whatsoever. You know the punishments.” The marquis raised his other hand and clasped them both above his head. “God wills this crusade!” he shouted. “
Deus lo volt!
God wills it!”

All around me, people began to call out, “God be praised! God wills it! God with us!”

After this, the marquis mounted a Barb stallion and rode down to his camp, a mile south from ours.

Sometimes, after a thunderstorm, the face of the exhausted earth is tear-stained but fresh and fragrant, full of hope. That's how it felt this evening on Saint Nicholas.


rude to Lady Cécile and Tanwen.

I heard him preach a sermon on the strand this morning.

“These are Christ's words,” he began. “My brothers, Christ speaks this sermon. I'm simply His mouthpiece.” The cardinal crossed himself. “You've taken the Cross, and when you exterminate the Saracens, when you wash the streets of Jerusalem with their blood, you'll receive great rewards here and in heaven: the rich spoils of war; pardon without penance for all your foul sins; eternal life.”

The cardinal looked up at the sun, and then squinted at us. “But some of you are fools!” he called out. “Would you put this at risk? You pander to your desires by keeping with you your wives, your mistresses, your wenches. Women are depraved witches. They're instruments of the devil!”

Instruments of the devil? How can they possibly be?

“Every woman,” the cardinal called out, “is to leave this island within five days.”

There was one long moment of silence, and then everyone started grumbling, jeering, whistling. Cardinal Capuano showed us the palms of his hands, but that was as useless as telling the saltwaves to stop breaking. He was still speaking, but no one could hear a word.

Witches! Winnie and Grace, my half-sister, aren't witches, and Gatty isn't. And what about all the women who are nuns? What about the Virgin Mary?

Lady Alice and Lady Judith and Lady Anne: They're not depraved. They're loving and generous.

I wish Oliver were here. I know the serpent persuaded Eve to tempt Adam, and it's true that women are sometimes more fickle than men—I think Winnie quite likes to tease me about her feelings for Tom—but that doesn't mean they're evil.

Sir William is furious about Capuano's ruling, and his face is the color of a cooked lobster. The hairs sticking out of his nose are just about as long as a lobster's whiskers too!

“It's God's will,” said Lady Cécile.

“Nothing of the kind!” barked Sir William. “It's the whim of a Roman busybody. A lily-white bastard!”

Lady Cécile says we must all bow to God's will, but Tanwen is inconsolable. She wept and couldn't stop, and now she and Serle have been out walking for hours. They left Kester with me, and it took him a very long time to fall asleep.

We could cut off Tanwen's hair and dress her as a boy—some of the Picardian women are disguising themselves like that. But what about Kester? Poor Tanwen!

Only a few days ago, Saint Nicholas was discouraged and desperate. Then the marquis arrived, and everyone shouted and cheered. But now Cardinal Capuano has thrown us all down again.…



“I know,” said Lady Cécile. “That was wrong.”

“Wrong?” I said, more loudly than I meant to. “It was terrible.”

“But you should never have taken it. That's just as wrong.”

“It was a gift,” I said, as calmly as I could. “From my mother.”

Lady Cécile laid a hand on my wrist. “I see,” she said very quietly. “You mustn't judge him too harshly. I've seen more of the world than you, and believe me, sons often regret their fathers, fathers often deplore their sons. But he's proud of you, you know.”


“Yes, and all the more so now you've been knighted! He's proud of Tom and Grace too.”

I don't think Lady Cécile can know anything. If Sir William cared at all, he wouldn't stop me from meeting my mother. Does she even know who my mother is?

“And remember,” said Lady Cécile, “he's sixty-seven, almost sixty-eight, and blind in one eye; all his bones ache.” Lady Cécile sighed. “I do doubt whether I'll see him again. I know he's always blustering and berating you, but look after him, Arthur.” She laid her hand on my wrist again. “You need him, and he needs you.”

I can't understand how Lady Cécile can love my father. What is it that I cannot see?

I like Lady Cécile. It's just that I wish she didn't dishonor Lady Alice. If we'd talked earlier, I think she could have told me more about my father, and I could have told her things too. Why do we only discover the true value of something when we're about to lose it?

Before Lady Cécile and Tanwen and Kester left camp, I copied out my poem for Winnie: “Blazing hair and tawny eye! Freckle-face!…”

Sir Arthur to Winnie, my betrothed this twenty-first day of August

I hope you like my song.

What your father says about Sir William may be true, but he does not really mean half of what he says, and in the end he will reach an agreement with your father so that we may marry.

Turold has punched a hole in my half of our pledgecoin, and I have threaded a leather lace through it and wear it around my neck. Is your half safe?

Please greet Sir Walter and Lady Anne. I think about you each day, and Tanwen will tell you about our lives here. Copied on Saint Nicholas


I asked Tanwen to give these words to Winnie and tell her everything—about my being knighted and Saint Nicholas and our
camp and the looting and about Sir William and my ring and the waiting and meeting Saracen traders and about Bertie and…

And, somehow, it all seemed rather useless. Winnie and I are half this wide world apart. I can do nothing but wait.

Then I asked Tanwen to take a message to Gatty.

“How can I remember all this?” Tanwen complained.

“Just a short one.”

“Well, then?” said Tanwen, smiling her elfin smile. “What is it?”

“Tell Gatty to put herself, everything she is…no, not that! Tell her, tell her I can hear a little lark singing, and best things don't never get lost.”

“You can hear a lark singing…,” Tanwen repeated.

“A little one.”

“…and best things don't never get lost.”

“That's it,” I said.

“What's that supposed to mean, then?” Tanwen asked.

“Gatty will understand,” I said.

BOOK: King of the Middle March
7.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Magick Rising by Parker Blue, P. J. Bishop, Evelyn Vaughn, Jodi Anderson, Laura Hayden, Karen Fox
Penumbra by Keri Arthur
Embrace Me by Ann Marie Walker
The Black Book of Secrets by F. E. Higgins
Torn Apart by Peter Corris
Perfect Little Town by Blake Crouch
Embrace by Mark Behr