Read King of the Middle March Online
Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland
FELT LONELY AFTER TANWEN AND KESTER AND LADY CÃCILE
were rowed away. They left with at least one hundred other women, and the whole island has been strangely quiet: as if we have waved farewell to half of our own energy and spirit.
So much has happened since I was knighted. But actually, all my duties to Lord Stephen are the same as before, because I'm still in service to him. I have to brush his clothes and ensure they're well aired, and that's not easy because the sea air is very damp; I have to lay them out each morning, and help him to dress, and lace his boots, and hold up the basin so he can wash; I have to check Rhys is grooming Stupendous each day; I have to carve for Lord Stephen and Sir William and Serle at our little trestle table, and serve them. Yes, I spoil the chicken and unlace the rabbit and chin the salmon and tame the crab.â¦
But all the same, being a knight does feel different. Bertie is quite impressed, and I felt very proud when he told the branded knight that I was a knight too. Sometimes Rhys and Turold call me “sir” now, and Lady CÃ©cile told me my father's proud of me.
Turold says he has never seen a finer sword than mine. I keep unsheathing it when I'm alone, and fingering the blade, and the ring engraved on it.
“Sir Arthur!” Lord Stephen said late last night, when we were both lying on our mattresses.
“Sir Arthur, Sir Arthur, Sir Arthurâ¦I'm just sounding it out! It sounds good, doesn't it.”
I want to see knights! I want to hear knights! So as soon as I was sure Lord Stephen was asleep, I burrowed to the bottom of my saddlebag and pulled out my obsidian. My companion-stone.
Arthur-in-the-stone is sitting under an elm tree, talking to his three wise men.
“I had this dream,” he says, “and I've never been so afraid. I woke up shaking.”
“We will explain it,” replies one of the wise men.
“First I was in a forest, surrounded by wild beasts. Wolves. Wild boar. Lions licking their chops. I ran away from them, into a valley surrounded by high hills. The valley floor was green with the most succulent new grass, sprinkled with clover. Above me the clouds opened, and a lady came down. A duchess. She was holding a large wheel in one hand and turning it with the other.”
“What was it like, this wheel?”
“Turning or whirling?”
“She was wearing damask lined with otter fur; she had a train that was trimmed with gold. Her wheel was made of Welsh gold
inlaid with rubies; each spoke was as long as a spear, and splintered with silver.
“There were nine chairs fixed to the outside of the rim, and eight kings were sitting in them. When the duchess spun the wheel, six of them were turned upside down. They clung to the rim, yelling, gabbling, confessing:
“âI was cruel, I knowâ¦I had men torturedâ¦I was extortionateâ¦I abused womenâ¦I was the greatest and now I'm the leastâ¦king of the wheelâ¦damned, damnedâ¦'”
King Arthur sighs. “Then one by one they lost their grip and fell off. Only two men were left sitting in their chairs, but neither was content with that. They tried to claw their way up to the very top. One was dressed in royal blue, decorated with fleur-de-lys; the other wore a silver coat and, around his neck, a magnificent gold cross.”
“Did they get to the top?” one wise man asks.
“I was coming to that,” King Arthur replies. “The duchess smiled at me, and I greeted her.
“âWelcome!' she said. âIf anyone on earth should honor me, it's you, Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon and Queen Ygerna. All that you are is because of me. I have been your friend. You will sit in the topmost chair. I choose you to be the greatest leader and king on God's earth.'
“Then the duchess picked me up with long white fingers and set me down in the ninth chair. She combed my hair. She gave me a scepter and an orb incised with a map of the world, the continents and oceans. Then she slipped a sword into my right hand.
“After this,” King Arthur tells his wise men, “the duchess strolled over to an orchard, still carrying the gold wheel, and I was
sitting in the topmost chair. She offered me plums, pears, pomegranates; she gave me white wine that fizzed out of a well.
“But then, at midday, her mood completely changed. It darkened like a sky that suddenly swarms with thunder-clouds.
“âYou fool!' she said. âYou're as bad as the others.'
“âLady!' I protested.
“âSilence!' she shouted. âDon't waste words. Everything you've won, you'll lose. Then you'll lose life itself. You've enjoyed your kingdom and the pleasures of power for quite long enough!'
“The duchess glared at me with the eyes of a terrible wildcat. She whirled the wheel, and the two climbing kings fell off. Then I fell off! I couldn't move. I knew I'd broken every bone in my body. That's when I woke up.”
“Arthur,” says the first wise man, “the meaning of your dream is obvious. Lady Fortune gives and Lady Fortune takes away. She was your friend, and now she's your enemy.”
“You reached the height of your powers,” the second man says. “From now on, whatever you attempt will fail.”
“You and only you are responsible for your actions,” says the third man, “and as you well know, there's no power without abuse of it. The greater a man's power, the greater his sins. Confess your guilt. Found abbeys. Before long, you'll fall headlong.”
“Who were the six kings?” asks Arthur.
“Alexander and Hector of Troy and Julius Caesar,” the first wise man replies.
“Sir Judas the Maccabee, Joshua who flattened the walls of Jericho, and David who slew the giant Goliath and first sang the psalms,” says the second man.
“And who were the climbing kings?” the third man asks. “One was Charlemagne and the other Godfrey of Bouillon, keeper of the Holy Cross, conqueror of Jerusalem. But no warlord is a saint. Charlemagne and Godfrey may have been Christian, but they were no better than the first six kings.”
“And now Lady Fortune has named you as the ninth,” says the first wise man. “The nine noblest men ever to have walked on middle-earth.”
“Men will talk about you.”
“And sing your praises.”
“They'll write poems and stories and chronicles about you.”
“The wolves and the wild boar and the lions,” the first man says, “are evil men. Your enemies. And some of them, Arthur, are inside Camelot, smiling at you, pretending to be your friends.”
“Who?” asks the king.
“Mend your ways!” says the first man.
“On bended knees beg God for His mercy.”
“Save your soul.”
ERTIE SAYS WE MAY SAIL TO EGYPT,” I TOLD LORD
“Who told him that?” Lord Stephen demanded, blinking like an indignant owl.
“And why should they know?”
“Are we, sir?” I asked.
Lord Stephen dug his elbows into his mattress and sat up. “Rumors,” he said, “are nothing but rumors. But I did warn you that we might be ill-advised to head straight for Jerusalem. That's what the Saracens expect. And where they're best prepared.”
“But why Egypt, sir?”
In my head I could see Gatty standing in the little armory at Caldicot holding a pair of fustian breeches, and my telling her they came from El-Fustat in Egypt, and her asking me, “What's Egypt?”
“Why Egypt?” Lord Stephen repeated. “Because it's the storehouse of the Saracen world. Rich in grain and fruit and spices. Rich in gold. Do you know what the city of Alexandria's called?”
“The market between the two worlds: between the land oversea and North Africa. If we can take control of the Saracens' storehouse and cut their lines of communicationâ¦”
“The Venetians won't like that,” I said. “The shipwright told me about all the trade between Venice and Egypt, and Bertie and I met three traders from Alexandria. One of them told me that Muhammad was a trader.”
Lord Stephen harrumphed.
“There's another thing I wanted to ask you, sir.”
“There always is,” Lord Stephen replied.
But before I could ask why Cardinal Capuano attacked women, almost as if he were afraid of them, a horseman rode in to our camp.
I brought the man back into our tent.
“A message from the Marquis Boniface, sir,” the man told us. “He says twelve thousand men have assembled here on Saint Nicholas but we signed an agreement with the Venetians to build ships for thirty-three thousand men, and are obliged to pay for them. There is no alternative.”
“We are well aware of that,” Lord Stephen said very drily. “We've been reminded of it each day since we arrived.”
“In the name of suffering Christ,” the messenger said, “the marquis calls on each earl and lord in this army, each knight, each squire, each foot soldier, armorer, and stableman, to give money or valuables to help. Let each man consider what he can give.”
Lord Stephen blinked at the marquis's messenger. “I will consider it,” he said. “And you, Sir Arthur. You will, won't you?”
“I know!” said Lord Stephen, his eyes gleaming. “You could give that silver pledge-penny.”
I put my hands to my neck.
“Well, halfpenny!” Lord Stephen said.
“Sir,” said the messenger. “I don't think the marquis meansâ¦”
“I should hope not!” Lord Stephen said, smiling. “What's the use of honoring one commitment by dishonoring another?”
“Within three days,” the messenger said, “one of the marquis's envoys will visit you to discuss this matter further.” He bowed, and left the tent, and almost immediately another man rode in. A second messenger from the marquis.
“Dear Lord!” said Lord Stephen. “What next? Do you remember mornings like this at Holt?”
“You are Sir Arthur de Gortanore?” the messenger asked me.
Am I? De Caldicot? De Gortanore? How long will it take me to get used to my name?
“When Marquis Boniface arrived on Saint Nicholas,” said the messenger, “he began a search for the youngest and oldest knights in this army to accompany him to meet the Doge. We have visited each camp. You are sixteen years old, and not yet six months?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Then you, Sir Arthur, are the youngest knight on this island.”
Lord Stephen clapped a hand on my shoulder. Then he turned to the messenger. “What about the oldest knight?” he said. “Who is he?”
“He's sixty-seven, almost sixty-eight,” the messenger said. “Sir William de Gortanore!”
ROUND US THE WATER YAPPED AND PAWED OUR BOAT
“It's a good thing the cardinal's not here,” Marquis Boniface said. “This would have finished him off.”
“Why didn't he come, sir?” I asked.
“A bad mussel, or an oyster,” replied the marquis. “He's so sick, he wishes he'd never been born.”
The boat lurched and I looked anxiously at our two oarsmen, but they were laughing, and didn't notice me.
“We'll make do without him,” said the marquis. “So! Sir William and Sir Arthur. Father and son! Most surprising.”
“Nothing surprises me,” my father said. “Not any longer.”
“Don't say that!” said the marquis, and he smiled at me. “I'm sure your son will. And what could be better? Our children's achievements warm our blood.”
My father said nothing. He sniffed and looked into the distance. And then, as our boat lurched again, he grabbed at the gunwale, missed it, and fell over backwards.
The marquis and I each took one of my father's hands and pulled him up onto the crossbench again.
“Leg!” gasped my father. “Bloody leg! Massage it, boy! Go on!”
So I rubbed my father's right leg, and as I did I looked at his right hand. The back of it is covered with brown spots. The half-moons
on his nails have almost completely disappeared, so maybe he won't live much longer.
“That's enough!” my father said. “I can do it better myself.”
“Cramp?” asked the marquis.
My father fished into an inside pocket of his surcoat, pulled out two small furry feet, and glared at them. “No good at all,” he said. “Mole!”
“You need eelskin,” said the marquis.
“Useless!” exclaimed my father. And he tossed them over the gunwale.
“Eelskin,” the marquis said again.
“Lady Alice,” I began, “she saysâ¦”
“Your mother?” the marquis inquired.
“My second wife,” Sir William explained.
“Yes, she says hare's foot is the best, sir,” I said.
“For stiff joints, not for cramp,” my father said curtly. “That's enough from you, Arthur.”
“Ah!” said the marquis. His gaze flicked between us. “Well, my family swears by eelskin garters,” he said. “I'll have my squire ride over a pair for you.”
My father grunted. Then he turned and glittered at me. “Surprises!” he muttered. “I'll surprise you.”
Just before we reached the quay where the Doge's servants were waiting to greet us, the marquis glanced round at us and rubbed his moustache. “Now to work!” he said.
Up one flight of echoing steps. Down another. Through half a dozen staterooms. Stopping to listen to a fanfare. I could climb to
the top of Tumber Hill and down again in the time it takes before you actually meet the Doge.
Then in trips a little old man, with a servant at his elbow to guide him and catch him if he stumbles.
The Doge's joints are not at all stiff. He gestures all the time, and his voice is light and quick. And his blind eyes are so bright, you'd suppose he had just seen paradiseânot like my father's eye, which has turned the color of congealed blood.
The Doge and Marquis Boniface greeted one another very warmly, first embracing and then talking for a while. Then the marquis told the Doge about us.
“I've brought with me two men,” he said, “the oldest and the youngest of all the knights, just two representatives of my huge army encamped on Saint Nicholas. One is sixty-seven, the other sixteen. More than fifty years divide them.”
“You are both welcome,” said the Doge.
“But they are united in their purpose,” the marquis continued, “as are we all. Not only that. They're father and son!”
“Padre e figlio!”
the Doge repeated, and he waved his arms.
“Most extraordinary!” said the marquis. “We searched the whole island and found them side by side in the little English camp. Sir William de Gortanore. Sir Arthur de Gortanore.”
“One family, yes,” my father blared. “And what is more important than family?”
Is that what my father said? What is more important than family?
“We're here to represent all Christian families,” my father went
on. “All the families in Christendom. Indeed, sir, we represent the Holy Family, suffering now because of the Saracens.”
The Doge listened patiently, then gave my father a faint smile.
When I took the Doge's hand, it was crumpled and brittle. Dry as a dead beech leaf.
“England,” he said. “Coeur-de-Lion.”
“I fought with him,” my father boomed. “At Acre. Now there's a leader for you!”
“King John?” the Doge inquired mildly.
“Lesser metal,” my father replied.
“One thousand marks,” Marquis Boniface added. “That's his entire contribution to this crusade.”
said the Doge, and he pursed his lips.
We were shown to a bench while the marquis and the Doge sat down in chairs, and they soon began a serious discussion about the treaty. Even after everyone has made a contribution, we can't raise anything like as much as eighty-five thousand marks. But the Doge says the Venetians can't accept less. On the other hand, it would be unthinkable to tear up the contract and send everyone home, because the Venetians would be left with two hundred ships they do not need, and everyone in Christendom would spit at their name for allowing the crusade to fail.
“The price for each man and horse is too high,” the marquis complained.
“It's the right price and you know it,” replied the Doge. “What's
wrong was your envoys' estimate of how many men would take the Cross.”
Although the marquis and the Doge kept disagreeing, they both kept smiling.
“Words, words, words,” my father grumbled. He got up and headed for the door. “I need a piss,” he announced in a loud voice, and a servant led him out.
I felt blood rush to my cheeks. Can't my father tell the difference between a camp and a palace?
The Doge snapped his fingersâat least, he tried toâand before long a servant brought a platter of black olives and little squares of hard, pungent cheese, and a pitcher of red wine.
“What are we to do?” he asked, as much to himself as to Marquis Boniface. “Christendom is watching us. Our children's children will judge us. What would be most wise?”
The Doge tilted back his head and lifted his hands, beseeching God; then he gazed blindly at the marquis, and frowned as if he were trying to find the right words. But I had the feeling he knew exactly what he was going to say.
“I have one ideaâ¦one proposal. For twenty years the city of Zara has rebelled against the Republic of Venice. The people there have broken their oaths; they rebel against us; they dishonor their debts to us. It was all we could do to find enough oak to build your ships without supplies from their forests.” The Doge gritted his teethâthe few teeth he has leftâand shook his head angrily.
At this moment, Sir William blundered back into the room. “The needs of nature!” he announced. “No compromise!”
“If you agreeâ¦,” the Doge began, “if you agree to help us recover Zaraâ¦”
The marquis didn't move a muscle.
“â¦as is our right,” the Doge added. “We have every right to reclaim our own territory before joining this crusade. Didn't Coeur-de-Lion do the same? If you agree,” the Doge repeated, “my councillors might agree to postpone payment.”
“I see,” the marquis said quietly.
“We will divide the spoils,” said the Doge, “and you can pay us out of your share. Then we'll set sail for Egypt.”
Egypt! Bertie was right.
“But,” said the marquis, “the people of Zara: They're Christians.”
Christians! My head felt as if it were bursting. We're meant to be fighting Saracens, not fighting ourselves. If Cardinal Capuano were here, surely he would be angry at the Doge's suggestion.
“True!” said the Doge in a matter-of-fact way.
There was a long silence.
“Well!” said Marquis Boniface. “I see I must consider it. I will discuss it with my envoys.”
“And I with my Grand Council,” the Doge said. “I think we seeâ¦eye to eye.” He laughed gently. “In a matter of speaking,” he added.
Then the Doge stood up. When he took my hand, he smiled slightly.