Authors: Elizabeth Winthrop
“According to the riddle, you must cross the drawbridge as a squire. I will start your training now,” Sir Simon explained. He dropped a brown cloth tunic over William's head while murmuring some odd incantation.
Then he fastened a belt around his middle, complete with a soft leather bag and a small, sharp dagger in its scabbard.
“What were you whispering?” William asked.
“The words my father said over me when I became a knight: rules of conduct we must respect, be we knight, squire, or page.”
“Tell me what they are,” William said.
“Be compassionate to the needy. Neither squander wealth nor hoard it. Never lose your sense of shame. If questions are asked of you, answer them frankly but do not ask too many yourself. Be manly and of good cheer. Never kill a foe who is begging for mercy.”
“You have forgotten one, Sir Simon,” said Mrs. Phillips, who was standing on the side, watching the two of them.
“What is that, my lady?”
“Be ever loyal in love.”
He smiled at her. “Oh, yes. But in that one quality, William is not lacking.”
“Certain things bear repeating,” she replied simply.
“As you wish, my lady.”
They divided his training. Sir Simon taught him how to use his dagger, how to improve the speed of his footwork, how to keep his weapons in good order, how to load and fire a crossbow, how to dress and arm his lord, Sir Simon. As it was believed that a knight's
strength increases until midday and wanes with the sun, Sir Simon worked with William in the morning and Mrs. Phillips drilled him in the afternoon. They played chess and backgammon. She made him practice his recorder (“Music will calm the beast in man and nature,”), and she put him through his gymnastics exercises.
“Do it again. The round-off wasn't tight enough,” she said one afternoon. They had moved the trestle table to the side of the courtyard to make room for his tumbling. Sir Simon sat in one corner, watching while he sharpened the blade of his dagger.
“You're tougher than Robert,” William complained as he returned to the starting position.
“Did you go to practice last week?”
“Yes, but Robert said I wasn't paying attention. He wanted you to come back.”
She smiled. “You could have brought me in your pocket. Wouldn't Robert have been surprised to see that?”
“There's something else. One day last week, he took me aside at the end of practice. His face was all serious and he said, âWilliam, when you do gymnastics, you have to be honest about everything you do in the other parts of your life too. Otherwise, your body will deceive you and you won't be able to turn the tricks.' ”
“What do you think he meant?” she asked with a smile.
“The thing I had done to you must have been showing through in the floor routine. It's kind of creepy that my own body would give me away like that.”
She didn't answer. William did the exercise again. Round-off, two back handsprings, Arabian dive roll.
“Bravo,” cried the knight, putting down his dagger to clap.
“Sir Simon,” cautioned Mrs. Phillips, “please hold your applause until we are finished. It distracts William, and he needs to concentrate very hard right now.”
Sir Simon went back to his work, looking embarrassed. William smiled to himself. He was glad to see somebody else getting in trouble for a change. Mrs. Phillips had been very hard on him all week.
“Now, William, listen to me. I want to alter the routine a bit. The beginning will be the sameâround-off, two back handsprings. Then come out of the second back handspring and do an Arabian forward somersault instead of the dive roll.”
“You mean a front flip at the end?”
She nodded. He didn't bother to ask why. He knew she would fix him with that steely glare of hers and refuse to answer.
On the first try, he fell in the middle of the front somersault.
“You weren't concentrating,” she said. “Your mind was still telling you to do the dive roll. You need to put both mind and body into it. I will spot you for the front somersault this time. Tomorrow you will start doing it yourself.”
He was able to execute it perfectly, knowing that her outstretched arm would be there to support his back.
“That's enough for today,” she said at last. William glanced over at Sir Simon who raised his fist in a silent cheer behind her back. When she saw the direction of William's eyes, she turned around, but Sir Simon's head was bent close to his work.
“What's all this rehearsing for?” William asked her after the third day.
“You will never be able to defeat the wizard with brute strength,” she said. “Let Sir Simon challenge him openly if he wants to. You will have to depend on your brain, your footwork, and the sense of space you have developed as a gymnast. I don't know which of those weapons you will need to use, but all of them must be sharpened just as Sir Simon sharpens his dagger.
“And why the change in the routine to the front flip?” he asked.
“Another weapon. You get back on your feet a little faster that way.”
At the end of a week, Sir Simon declared that they were ready. He and William would leave at dawn.
“I will spend the night alone in the chapel as I did before I became a knight. At daybreak, you must come to me, William, and help me dress.”
After the knight left them, William and Mrs. Phillips sat in her room for a long time. In the quiet of the evening, he held himself still, listening for the world outside the castleÂ .Â .Â .Â the world of the attic, of his house, of the traffic going by on the main road. But he couldn't hear anything.
“Do you think it's still there?” he asked her. “Our old world?”
“I'm not sure.”
“Will we ever get back?”
“That depends on you.”
“Can't you come with me?” he asked, the question that had been at the back of his mind all week. “I still need you to spot me for that final flip.”
“Remember what Robert once said to us when he first taught me how to spot you. âPut your hand out and support him lightly, Mrs. Phillips. Allow William to feel the skill in all parts of his body. You will keep him safe, but he will do the trick.' ” She shook her head. “You must find your own way through the forest, William. That's what I've been trying to tell you
all along. In this world and our old one. Come stand here by me.”
She was seated in front of the fire, doing the same needlework he had seen her with that first afternoon. He had never looked at it closely before.
“What is it?” he asked.
“A firescreen. But that isn't important. Look at the picture.”
William leaned closer. “I see a man. There is someone with him. Someone smaller. And some trees.”
Her finger touched the man and then the smaller person. “A man and a boy setting out on an adventure. Into a forest.” She glanced up at him. “Remember the motto. When the lady doth ply her needle and the lord doth test his sword. When the squire shall cross the drawbridgeÂ .Â .Â .Â Remember?”
He nodded silently. He had forgotten the exact words.
“There are rules in the world of magic just as there are in our world. Everything has its place. Directions must be followed. Each person is given the right weapon. My weapon is the needle and thread.”
“Will I be all right?” he asked.
“You are always asking me that question, William. Now I shall ask you. Will you be all right?”
He didn't answer but went over and stood by the
narrow window, looking out into the darkness. Tomorrow and the next day and the day after, where would he be? What would he meet?
“I wish you'd never given me the castle. Then you'd be in England and I'd be at home. But now that everything is in place, I'm ready to go.”
For the first time, the answer came from somewhere deep inside him. And he believed it.
“And whatever happens, you must remember one thing,” she said. “That you have within you the weapons you need. The heart and soul of a knight in the body of a squire. No other weapon will ever serve you as well as that knowledge.”
That night he slept in her room, on a straw pallet in front of the fire.
When he woke up, she was already dressed. She helped him adjust his tunic and slid the soft leather bag along the belt till it hung above his right hip.
“It seems heavier,” he said, exploring its lumpy exterior with his fingers.
“There's some food in there and your recorder and your binoculars.”
“I guess I can't take Bear,” he said.
“Your hands must be free, and he's too large to fit into the bag. Anyway, I'll need some company in this drafty old castle. Now go to Sir Simon,” she said,
crushing him in a quick hug. “I'll meet you in the courtyard.”
William slipped both hands through the metal ring of the chapel door and pulled it open. He didn't see Sir Simon at first. He stood at the back, accustoming his eyes to the flickering light from the altar candles and his nose to the sweet smell of incense. An enormous wooden cross filled the dark wall just above the altar. William stared up at it for a long time, held by the sight of the face looking down at him. This dark, holy place with its mysteries and shadows made him feel small and quiet. At last, he saw Sir Simon, lying face down in the main aisle that led to the altar, his arms outstretched. William stayed quiet, waiting. After what seemed like hours, the body moved and Sir Simon clambered slowly to his feet. He passed his squire with a nod, which William took to mean he was to follow in silence.
Sir Simon seemed quieter after his night of fasting and prayer. William remembered his instructions from the week before. First the quilted vest and cap to protect the knight from the hard edges and weight of his own armor. Then the chain-mail shirt with the hood that fastened behind the ears. William had to stand on a stool in order to tie the strings tight enough to suit Sir Simon. Next he strapped on the chest protector and the arm and shoulder guards. On top of the
chain-mail leggings, he fastened shin guards to protect the knight's legs from the blow of a misdirected lance. Finally, over the knight's head, he dropped the silver tunic, decorated with Sir Simon's coat of arms; the figure of a lion, flanked by a cross.
“My sword and helmet, William,” the knight said at last. “You have done well.”
Mrs. Phillips appeared at the side door as Sir Simon was strapping on his scabbard. “I have lowered the drawbridge,” she said quietly.
“Thank you, my lady. Since we have no priest, I would ask that you bless my sword.”
She stepped forward and touched the carved hilt with her finger. “Remember that you serve both God”âshe touched one side of the bladeâ“and the people”âshe touched the other side. “Protect this knight and his squire from any evil that seeks to harm them or keep them from their chosen path.”
Sir Simon bowed and slipped the weapon into its sheath. “I would ask of you a keepsake, my lady.”
“I am honored, Sir Simon.” She took a long silk scarf from her neck and tied it around his forearm.
“And you shall have mine,” he murmured as he handed her the token of Janus. “This is for your protection while we are gone. Guard it well,” he said as he pressed the leather pouch into her hand. They gazed at one another for a long solemn moment. Then he
kissed her hand and turned toward the door.
William went to her and she kissed him quickly on the forehead. “You will come back,” she whispered before she pushed him gently on his way.
As they walked out under the massive stone arch and over the drawbridge, William looked down and saw the muddy waters of a real moat. He reached out to stop Sir Simon and show him, but after a moment's thought he withdrew his hand.
He turned once to wave at Mrs. Phillips, who was still standing under the archway. When he glanced back the second time, the drawbridge had been raised.
The dirt road out of the castle wound around a corner between two rows of stately trees. Summer was in full flower, and the trees seemed weighed down by their heavy green leaves. The dust of the road was damp with the morning dew. Spiders had stretched their webs on the bushes, and drops of water glistened on the strands like tears. Birds chided each other and called out the news of early travelers on the road. Swallows dropped from the trees like stones to snatch a bit of breakfast on the wing.