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       The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight, p.1

           Gerald Morris
 
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The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight


  The Princess, The Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight

  Gerald Morris

  * * *

  Houghton Mifflin Company

  Boston

  * * *

  For Grace,

  her own princess

  * * *

  Copyright © 2004 by Gerald Morris

  All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce

  selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,

  215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

  www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com

  The text of this book is set in 12.5-point Horley Old Style.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Morris, Gerald, 1963–

  The princess, the crone, and the dung-cart knight / by Gerald Morris,

  p. cm.

  Summary: Determined to find the knight responsible for the terrible deaths of

  her mother and the Jewish peddler who had given them a home, thirteen-year-old

  Sarah is helped in her quest by a strange old woman, a magical sword, a young

  faery, and an unkempt knight with little armor and no horse.

  ISBN 0-618-37823-5

  1. Lancelot (Legendary character)—Juvenile fiction. [1. Lancelot (Legendary

  character)—Fiction. 2. Knights and knighthood—Fiction. 3. Fairies—Fiction.

  4. Magic—Fiction. 5. England—Fiction.] I. Title.

  PZ7.M82785Pr 2004 [Fic]—dc22 2003012296

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  VB 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3

  * * *

  CONTENTS

  I SARAH 1

  II BELREPEIRE AND CAMELOT 22

  III QUESTING 48

  IV THE DUNG-CART KNIGHT 73

  V THE DIVIDING OF THE WAYS 94

  VI THE HERMIT OF THE TOMB 118

  VII THE CUSTOM OF THE LAND 143

  VIII THE SWORD BRIDGE 169

  IX NIGHT IN LOGRES CASTLE 200

  X THE WOUNDED LAND 224

  XI THE TRIAL 252

  XII HER OWN PRINCESS 274

  AUTHOR'S NOTE 307

  * * *

  "But listen, gentlemen; to bring things down

  To a conclusion, would you like a tale?

  Now as I've drunk a draught of corn-ripe ale,

  By God it stands to reason I can strike

  On some good story that you all will like.

  For though I am a coarse and wayward man

  Don't think I can't tell moral tales. I can!"

  Chaucer's "Pardoner," in the prologue to

  his story in The Canterbury Tales

  I

  Sarah

  Sarah was almost certain that the big knight on the gray horse wasn't the one she was looking for, but she followed him anyway. The knight of the fires had seemed smaller, but that could have been because he was farther away from her that night in February. If this knight would just say something, she was sure she would know from his voice, but the chattering lady at his side wasn't giving him a chance.

  Happily for Sarah, the knight and the lady were riding at a ridiculously slow pace, and Sarah was able to keep up with them on foot, even while taking pains to be quiet. Occasionally, Sarah heard snatches of the lady's monologue: "...a most lovely shade of pink, but how she thought she could wear it with her yellow hair ... So nothing would do for him but to fasten her token to his helmet, where of course it looked utterly like a purple pigtail, so that we were all obliged to hide our smiles ... If Gareth hadn't married her, I don't know who..." It sounded like a great deal of nothing to Sarah, which may have been why the big knight was silent.

  At last the knight and lady came to a small clearing, and the knight stopped his horse and said, "Shall we take a rest here, my lady?"

  "Already?" The lady sounded astonished.

  "I want to check my horse's hooves," the knight said calmly. "He seems to be favoring the right side." He dismounted and stepped around his horse's neck, and Sarah saw his face clearly. It was not the knight of the fires. She sighed softly and sat behind a bush to wait for them to move on. The knight glanced briefly at his horse's hooves, then strolled over to the tree beside Sarah's bush, removed his long sword from his side, and sat down. "May as well rest a moment while we're stopped," he said.

  "Why, my dear brother, I believe you must be getting old," the lady said. "Tired after barely an hour's riding!" She dismounted and then glanced mischievously at the knight. "Is your rheumatism acting up? Shall I brew you a hot posset?"

  The knight laid his sword on the grass beside him and leaned against the tree. "The day I see your ladyship brewing a hot anything is the day I shall truly know I'm getting old."

  The lady laughed and sat beside the knight, resuming her cheerful monologue about fashions and knights and ladies and courtly nothings, but Sarah no longer listened. Her attention had been caught by the knight's sword. It looked awfully large up close, and Sarah wasn't at all sure she could use it even if she had it, but it was impossible to pass up. For months she had been wishing for a weapon, and here one was, not five feet away. Cautiously, she inched forward, making no sound as she crept around the bush. When she was right behind the tree where the knight sat, she reached around the trunk until her hand was just above the sword's hilt.

  Then came a crushing pain from her forearm, and she felt herself jerked roughly forward into the tree trunk. Her face smacked the tree, then scraped along the bark as the knight, who had grabbed her arm, dragged her around the trunk and threw her sprawling into the middle of the clearing. She scrambled to her feet and clenched her hands into tiny fists.

  The lady was staring at her, open-mouthed but silent, but the knight only regarded her placidly. "That's my sword," he said.

  "Don't come near me," Sarah said fiercely, "or I'll make you regret it."

  The knight's face relaxed, and his lips seemed less stern. "Indeed, I did not know that this forest harbored such ferocious creatures. Stay near me, my lady. I shall try to protect you if we're attacked."

  "Fie on you, Kai!" the woman said. "'Tis but a child! What have you done to her?" Sarah looked sharply at the knight. Was this the same Sir Kai that Mordecai had spoken of?

  The knight answered the lady without looking away from Sarah's face. "This child, my lady, was trying to steal my sword, doubtless to cut our throats and rob our corpses."

  "No!" Sarah exclaimed, appalled. "I never would have!"

  The woman rose to her feet. "Of course you wouldn't," she said soothingly. "Why would a noble young lady like you want to steal a sword?"

  Sarah eyed the lady warily, and the knight said, "Noble, you say? Now how might you know that, my lady? She looks like an extraordinarily dirty village urchin to me."

  "Perhaps she could use a wash," the lady admitted, "but the dress she is wearing beneath that old cloak is of Norwich silk, or I'm a fishwife!"

  Sarah blinked with surprise. She wasn't sure if even Mordecai could have identified the quality of her dress so unerringly, considering that no more than two inches of mud-spattered silk showed beneath her coarse woolen cloak.

  "Don't bother denying it, child," the knight said to Sarah. He still sat in the grass, leaning against the tree. "My lady here is never wrong about such matters. Nevertheless, whether you're gently born or not, you were trying to steal my sword."

  "Don't be ridiculous, Kai!"

  "Weren't you?"

  Sarah lifted her chin. "Yes, I was. But not to kill you with it!"

  The knight's thick eyebrows arched. "Then why, child?"

  Sarah thought about saying that she only wa
nted to see it because she'd never seen a sword up close before, but the stern look on the knight's face reminded her strongly of the disapproving frown that Mordecai used to give her when she told a lie. She said clearly, "I wanted it so I could kill my enemies, sir."

  The lady grew pale. "No, my child, I beg you. Unsay those words and put aside such thoughts. They will only bring you pain and distress." Sarah set her lips and said nothing, and the lady turned to the knight. "Kai, tell her she's being foolish."

  "Is she?" the knight asked. "Killing enemies is what a sword is for, is it not?" In one smooth motion, surprisingly quick for one of his size, the knight rose to his feet and took a step closer to Sarah. "Do you indeed have enemies that deserve killing?"

  Sarah felt her eyes burning, and her throat grew tight. She nodded.

  "And you wish to be the one who does this?"

  "Yes," Sarah whispered.

  The knight looked into her eyes for several seconds, his own eyes dark and unreadable beneath his heavy black brows. Then he nodded to himself. "Why then, my child, you should have a weapon, but this broadsword of mine is not for one of your years. How old are you?"

  "Thirteen, sir."

  "Small for your age, too." The knight walked across to his horse and began untying a bundle behind the saddle.

  "What are you doing, Kai?"

  "I'm giving the lady a sword. She has need of one."

  "No, Kai, not to a young lady. Not to one of her birth."

  "I don't know the circumstances of her birth any more than—I beg your pardon, my lady—any more than you do. But much has happened in this child's life since then, I would think. By the by," he called over his shoulder to Sarah, "what's your name?"

  Sarah hesitated, then said quietly, "Sarah."

  The knight looked back at her, and his eyes narrowed. "Is it, then?" He started to speak, then stopped. At last he bowed his head and said, "A very great pleasure, I'm sure. I am called Sir Kai." Sir Kai untied one last thong and produced a slender sword in a black leather scabbard. Sarah's eyes widened, and without thinking she stepped forward, hands outstretched.

  "Kai, that sword was made for your son! Will you truly give it away to a chance-met stranger in a wood?"

  "Trebuchet can make another," Sir Kai replied.

  Sarah stopped, and she looked searchingly at Sir Kai's face. "I can't take your son's sword."

  Sir Kai chuckled. "You have curious scruples, Sarah. Were you not willing to take my own sword not ten minutes ago?" Sarah looked at the ground and reddened. "Nay, my child. It is no great thing. My son is but two years old and barely walking. This was to be a gift many years hence. You, I feel sure, will need it before he does."

  The lady tried once more. "What are you doing, Kai? You can't give such a sword away! Especially to a girl! She should be at home with her mother, sewing samplers and learning to dance!" Sarah's jaw tightened, and her eyes grew hot again.

  "T'sh, child," Sir Kai murmured softly. His black eyes rested on her as he brought her the sword. "Think not of it." He threw the belt over her head and left arm, then adjusted the scabbard and stepped back. "It could have been made for you."

  Sarah tried to understand what was going on, but her mind only groped helplessly for explanations. Why was this knight giving her a sword? "Thank you, sir ... Sir Kai. You are too kind. I ... but I must be going now." She began to back away, fearing that he would change his mind and take the sword back.

  Sir Kai shook his head. "Nay, my child. I give no one a sword unless I may teach how to use it. 'Tis not a toy. First, you must learn to hold it. Draw your sword now."

  "What?" the lady gasped. "Do you mean to ... are you going to give this little girl lessons in swordplay?"

  "Just so, my lady."

  "And what, pray, am I to do while you do so?"

  "You could brew me a hot posset," Sir Kai replied seriously. "For my rheumatism, you know."

  Sarah was small, but she had always been wiry, and her life the past three months had given her strength and quickness. She first learned to draw the sword—not at all as easy as one might think, especially when wearing a dress. Sir Kai made her draw the sword again and again, for over an hour, telling her, "Anyone you face is likely to be stronger than you; you'd best be faster than he." After that he showed her how to hold the sword defensively. Then Sir Kai replaced the sword with a stout wooden staff, and taught her how to attack. He said to always hold the sword with two hands. "It will limit your range of motion somewhat, but it will make you faster and give you more control."

  "Do you use two hands when you fight?"

  "Yes. Occasionally I'll shift it to one hand or the other, but I'm four times your size and much stronger. If I were fighting with that lighter sword, now, I'd use only one hand and rely on speed."

  "You do have very quick hands," Sarah admitted, rubbing her forearm.

  "Sorry about that, Sarah. I wasn't sure if you were a man or a woman. It was hard to tell through the bushes."

  "You saw me through the trees?" Sarah asked.

  "While we were riding," Sir Kai explained. "Why do you think I stopped? I wanted a better look at you."

  "But no one ever sees me when I creep through the brush!" Sarah exclaimed. Her ability to move through the woods without being seen was what had kept her alive since February. She couldn't believe that this knight had seen her.

  "Mayhap I have quick eyes, too," Sir Kai said. "Now, pretend I'm coming at you from your right. Position! No, no, child. Look at your feet! One little shove, like this, and you're flat on your ... you're sitting down. Here, let me show you."

  Sir Kai continued teaching Sarah swordplay through the morning, while the lady leaned against the tree and watched. Despite her early complaints about having nothing to do, she showed no boredom. Indeed, she watched the lessons with a growing smile. At last, when the sun was high overhead, the lady interrupted the teacher and the pupil. "Forgive me," she said politely, "but I grow hungry for luncheon. Mistress Sarah, would you honor us with your company for a meal? Are you hungry?"

  Sarah was always hungry. Trying not to betray too much eagerness, she thanked the lady and swept a curtsy. Unfortunately, she still held her sword, and when she lifted her skirts she nearly jabbed the lady with the point. "Oh, dear. I'm so sorry," she said. "I'm afraid I don't know how to curtsy with a sword in my hand. Sir Kai, how do you do it?"

  The lady burst into laughter, and even Sir Kai grinned. "That, my dear, you'll have to work out on your own."

  Together they walked back to the tree, where the lady had emptied one of the packs from the horses' saddles and had laid out bread, cheese, and some cooked meat. "I may not have brewed you a posset, Kai," she said cheerfully, "but you see that I've been domestic. Mistress Sarah, would you care for some water?"

  Sarah nodded vehemently and turned her attention to the offered water bag. Swordplay was thirsty work, and she drank greedily until Sir Kai stopped her. "Not too much at once," he said. "Have some food now."

  Sarah took some of everything, trying not to wolf it down. "Thank you, madam," she said, remembering her manners.

  The lady glanced at Sir Kai. "See what I mean? Listen to her speech! I'm sure she's gently born!"

  Sir Kai was watching her acutely. "A real princess," he said. Sarah glanced at him sharply, but his face was expressionless. Sarah ate hungrily until all the bread and cheese and venison was gone. It was the first time in months that she had felt full. She reached for the water bag and drained it, then looked up guiltily. "I'm sorry," she said. "I've emptied your water bag." She leaped to her feet. "I'll refill it for you. There's a spring just through that copse. I'll be right back." She adjusted her sword, picked up the water bag, and hurried away through the trees. She had no trouble locating the spring—by now she knew every source of fresh water in the forest—and in no time she had refilled the bag and was nearly back to camp. As she drew close, she heard the lady speaking.

  "...had told me five years ago that I'd watch the great Sir K
ai spend a whole morning teaching a girl, I'd have thought them mad. Now admit that you've changed!"

  "Nay, my lady. You can't say I've changed. I've never been asked to teach a girl swordplay before."

  Sarah slowed and listened. "Perhaps," the lady replied. "But you were so patient an instructor! Indeed, your marriage to Connoire has wrought a marvelous work in you."

  "Connoire is a marvelous woman," Sir Kai replied. "But I doubt I should have spent so much time on a girl had I not reasons of my own. Her name—Sarah—it is not a common name. I must find out more about our little princess."

  Sarah stopped entirely. "Such as?" the lady asked.

  "Where are her parents? What brings a girl like her out into the woods so far from any town? And whatever could have happened to inspire a tender child like her with such a depth of hatred?"

  "Hatred?"

  "Not for us, but for someone. And again, there's her name. It means 'princess,' and she knows it. When she returns, I must ask her about an old friend of—Who's this?" This last was spoken sharply, and, peering around the bush, Sarah saw Sir Kai leap to his feet, his sword in his hand. At the other side of the little clearing was a knight sitting on a great white horse. Her hands went immediately to her own sword, and she leaned forward to see the knight's face, but the visor on his helm was down. The strange knight held a long lance, and without a word he pointed it at Sir Kai's chest and booted his great horse into a run.

  Sir Kai waited until the knight was close, then leaped to one side. The knight must have been expecting this, because his lance moved also, following Sir Kai's jump. It missed Sir Kai's chest but struck him solidly on his right hip. Sir Kai went sprawling, spattering the grass with blood and losing his grip on his sword. The strange knight leaped from his horse, drawing his own blade, and rushed toward Sir Kai. Sir Kai tried to stand, then crumpled, and then the knight's sword was at his throat.

  "Do you yield?" the knight asked hoarsely. Sir Kai glared balefully at the knight and said nothing.

 
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