The Green Knight and his Guests
A Retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Down the stone steps it rolled, quietly as that heavy a thing could thanks to the carpets unfurled for the day. There was no such padding upon the wall when the stairs reached their midpoint and pivoted at a harsh angle, so the sound of its collision traveled throughout the castle. There was no trouble yet, for everyone that could possibly hear it was floors below and awash in much more joyous noises.
Greater harm came from the boy running after and tripping down the same stairs, smacking his face against its great top and sliding like a frog tossed onto a pane of glass. His feet of nineteen years, same as the rest of his pieces, found footing once more.
“You’ll not get away from me,” he whispered, though it was more the wispy offspring of a pant and a laugh. Gawain, somehow bearing the title of knight when in the presence of others, marveled once more at the centerpiece of the day’s festivities. The circle of Arthyr Pendragynn. The container of the holy pentangle representing the five knightly virtues. His hand was flat on one arm of the stone: a triangle of foreign cinnabar representing chivalry. Each was cast in a different color, set into the wooden table and shining from each stone’s ten thousand year slumber in the Earth. Chivalrous cinnabar. Friendly sapphire. Free-giving amethyst. Pious marble. Chaste rose quartz.
It is said that the king’s round table was the entirety of his court, and when his knights were sat around it nothing else in the world existed to him. Gawain wondered if it went further than that, if the world’s motion did indeed cease, pausing with tight breath, unwilling to proceed until its ruler had made all the necessary decisions. Many were the times he’d helped deliberate at its edge, but never at one of the five seats determined by the points of the pentangle. This was his chance, his first Yule as one of the angels of the angles, as the divine Lady Gwenyvyr called them.
Thus was the brilliance of volunteering to fetch the table in preparation of the Bread Parade: the first feast of the holiday season where the king would be in attendance. All of the others would choose their own seats before he arrived, with his many knights sometimes coming perilously close to dueling over the five coveted places.
Arthyr’s many superstitions and preferences for his round table were well known, and none of them could be called silly given the sorcery-saturated origin of the object. Never had Merlyn, in his unbelievably long life so far, picked up an ax and approached a tree; yet he claimed to be the one and only craftsman of the magnificent thing Gawain had just gotten stuck in the stairs. There was magic in it, the only proper questions regarding the number of enchantments, their effects, and their strength.
One of them was known to Gawain, who had already utilized it to get the round table out from its individual place of storage. A direct order from Merlyn, before the old man had vanished into a green lake mumbling about his inevitable return, saw that every enchanted object in the king’s castle had its own place away from the others.
“It seems a waste of space,” Gawain had told the wizard during one of their few conversations, and the only one where the young man was old enough to understand that a wizard in a tale was not always the hero. “What happens if you keep a magic shield and a magic sword together? Do they battle through the night like yowling male cats?”
“If only!” Merlyn had snorted. “Tie them together and call it a solution! No. Sorcery flows like a brook over lots of small uneven stones.” He tried to make his arms flow, but it was just an old man’s shiver; wiggling his long gray beard would’ve been a much more effective pantomime.
“What does that mean?”
“You ever try to pick specific drops out of a glass of water?” The boy shook his head. “Now imagine doing that with the water moving of its own accord. Sorcery is never perfectly contained to an item. Two enchantments next to each other mixes them both up. Creates only regret.”
And so the round table had been given its own dark crevice at the back of an otherwise empty room. Gawain couldn’t even see it when it was resting, so far it was in the recessed dark. All that he could do was follow the instructions for summoning it. Both his hands beckoned as if he stroked the belly fur of one of the horses from the far north. There were no magic words, only encouraging ones.
“King Arthyr summons his round table!” All was quiet. “The knights need your places, so that we may know who is the greatest heart of each virtuous shade!” The shadows gave not an echo. “You’re a very good and important table.” He stepped back softly, arms exaggerating the beckoning. “You are sweet… and so very… round.”
The side poked out like a coin lodged between deep tiles. Gawain became louder and more emphatic. Yes, what a beautiful perfect table! It could hold anything up! Any beast! Any towering tart the bakers could manage! Gwenyvyr could dance across it and would never leave a scratch! The round table rolled completely free of the crevice and followed him along the carpet.
Its weight would be impossible for even three fully grown men to maneuver, so the enchantment was vital no matter how silly its temperament became. The young knight stepped aside and bowed his head to allow it to descend first, but it seemed his compliments were too uplifting. The table had practically bounced down the first set of steps and then wedged itself in.
Pulling was no good and time was short. If the king were to sit down and place his hands upon naught but air there would be at least two reasons Gawain could not select his seat. Of course! How could he be so disrespectful, assuming getting it down the stairs might damage it. The table was the kingdom; it could take care of itself without any help from him. Gawain scurried down the next few steps and resumed complimenting it.
“Mighty steed of Arthyr’s statesmanship! You are needed for the Bread Parade! It cannot begin without you! Come, hurry!” The table creaked and wiggled, searching for the freeing angle. “Will the queen just have to hold her scones aloft… until the numbness takes her fingers?!” The round table popped out and tumbled down with enough speed to flatten a Gawain upon each step. He squeaked and ran, kicking off each wall as the stairs turned. As exciting as it might have been to be a permanent stain upon one of the virtues, he wanted to live long enough to see the others’ reaction to his stately station.
The stairs grew brighter as they came close to their ultimate goal. Arthyr’s castle was a beast that grew every year, saved stonemasons from across the lands coming to add wings, walls, and parapets of gratitude. Even as the man’s empire grew there was still far too much room for his knights to fill, even in their mightiest reveling.
Some of the earliest halls and chambers had been allowed to degrade naturally and were opened up to the citizenry, the removal of the ceilings explaining the copious natural rays that guided Gawain and his destructive pursuer the last part of the way. The table’s clattering became softer upon the thick grass, as the floors had been torn up as well. This old entryway was now a place of columns as stone trees where royalty could sit humbly among their people and the flowers, all parties treating each other with a different tinge of awe.
Songbirds nested in the most weathered corners, but the place was so full of life that they couldn’t find any brown twigs or yellow straw for material, forcing them to build beautiful miniature wreaths of plump leaves and vines that only added to the glory of Camylot.
The Bread Parade was long considered a woman’s day, with men having just as many across Yule, so the open breezy hall was filled with maidens and townsfolk dressed in their most colorful, snickering behind veils of pink and green. It was impossible not to be delighted, for the grounds were the only place they knew of that was warm all year round, where the sun always shined. Many correctly assumed that Merlyn was to thank for turning the darkest parts of the year into midsummer and blowing the snow from the eaves.
Indeed, even Gawain was assaulted by the relaxing kiss of warm sun when he stepped out, its power so great that he almost let the round table crush and curl him into the shape of a clipped fingernail. Only his reflexes saved him, sending him diving into the grass as it passed by.
“Pay heed! The round table is here; it settles for nothing but the perfect spot!” His shouted warning was observed by everyone, as the table had taken a life in the past just in doing its duty. Much more graceful in the flat grass, it wove between columns until it found a clear patch before the old throne platform that was now a blessed fountain. It wobbled like a coin until its legs took over and stilled it. Gawain put his head down and breathed a sigh of relief, letting blades of grass nudge his eyes closed, but it was premature.
Quick footsteps trying to sound slow. Feet rigid as if they wore boots. The knights were already rushing to its side, picking out their places. Chastity. The plan was to take the place of chastity, for knights least distracted by temptations of the flesh. Gawain had no wife and no betrothed. It was often the last spot taken for, though they would never admit it, the others wanted to be seen as men who had known the touch of many women. Some of them even had a child for every adventure in a foreign land, and they dared not place themselves at that point if such an offspring, loyal to a far off mongrel, came to call.
The young knight scrambled for it, but the table had not rolled into a favorable position: chastity was on the opposite side. The table wasn’t even clear, as cooks and servers were the first to swarm it. Loaves of bread, dark brown, round and cracked like hammered tortoiseshells, were placed near the center by women who had to slide their stomachs across the pentangle just to reach. Some of the cracks in the bread still steamed, doing their best to compete with the pots and bowls of soup that constituted the next phase of the parade.
“Woah! Steady on,” a man with an obnoxious grin said as he put himself in Gawain’s way, simultaneously marking himself as the apex of chivalry.
“Lancylot!” Gawain squawked, not realizing how short his breath was. “Move! I’m-”
“You’re what? You’re not late for anything. That bread would still burn your pink little hands.” He caught Gawain’s urgent glass around him. “Oh? You’re not vying to become an angel of an angle are you? You presume too much.” His expression darkened, but his smile didn’t.
“It’s the king’s place to say if I am,” the young man shot back. “You’re the one forcing the pentangle to aim chivalry at your heart.”
“For there are none so chivalrous in this kingdom as I.”
“A chivalrous man would not look at the queen the way you do.” Sir Lancylot’s eyes hardened to arrowheads, making Gawain regret the comment. He was not a stupid man, and his urge to strangle the boy could be rerouted, turned into a violent shove that looked playful from the outside. Then all he would have to do is laugh, telling the revelers that tiny weak Gawain couldn’t even handle a friendly pat on the shoulder.
His savior arrived at the perfect moment, which was the only one she ever occupied: Queen Gwenyvyr. Her arrival quieted everyone and drew Lancylot’s attention. Her radiance melted the heart of all mortals, so she was partly obscured by a veil of soft green, its sides so long that two handmaidens held them aloft and walked with her.
Gawain scrambled across the round table on all fours, only mostly successful in keeping his knees out of the butter and the trout stew. Even in his desperation to reach his seat he had to show the queen the respect of watching her take her own place. She crossed her legs and sat, her two maidens swaying in front of her to wrap the veil around her shoulders before they vanished into the background.
As his eyes darted between Gwenyvyr and his goal he took stock of the pentangle. Friendliness was already claimed by Sir Lucan the good, a representative who would be questioned by none. Lancylot was no doubt still behind him, firm and confident in his idea of chivalry. Piety pointed to Sir Iwain, a deserving man indeed given his recent test of faith. That left only chastity and free-giving.
His fingers wrapped around the edge, the pink triangle of quartz between them as if it was his greedy tongue lapping at prestige. Sitting was the claim though, and before he could reach the ground the immovably heavy Sir Bors plunked down in front of him. He stroked his ginger beard and smiled at the lad.
“Chastity is about willpower,” the man crowed. “The longer you use it, the more impressive it is. And I’m much older than you.”
“You are deserving,” Gawain admitted, “but I thought I would be tolerable to King Arthyr here. I will not fight such a good knight as you for the honor.”
“Free-giving with your respect I see,” he chuckled. “Try over there!” The mighty man grabbed him by the shirt and the seat of his pants, hurling him across the round table like a stone across a frozen pond. He picked up a few more stains on his slide and chipped a few plates, but Bors’s aim was true. When he fell he was practically pierced through the heart by the amethyst point of the pentangle.
As soon as he was sat upright he saw that Sir Bedyvyr was next to him, a generous knight indeed, but luckily for the boy that generosity included his typical place at the table. They offered each other a smile. That was it. He had a place. All that was left was the approval of the king, and like his wife he arrived only when every last person there was as ready for him as they could be. He appeared from the same stairs that had produced Gawain and the table, wearing no crown and no sword on his hip. The blade Excalybur was heavily enchanted, and was thus never allowed near the round table. Perhaps the crown was the same way, but it was more likely that the king simply refused to let it block any of that wondrous sunshine upon his forehead.
Gawain knew he would never see his uncle’s equal and that even illuminated pages could not hold an adequate imitation of the color in his cheeks, no matter how much gold leaf or cinnabar they used. The king was a well-intentioned man, which is to say intent was his greatest skill. Somehow his will always became reality; islands would rise out of the sea to give him a trail to walk on.
All were silent as he took his seat beside the queen. The cheery man pretended not to notice anyone but her, giving her a smile suited only to their bedchambers. She delicately spread butter on a rich brown roll, the fats liquefying and pooling in the crusty bubbles on its surface. The crinkle of those bubbles made Gawain’s stomach twinge, but hunger wasn’t allowed to touch his mind, which dangled out of reach nervously.
King Arthyr took the roll and bit into it, eyes gliding around the table before he ripped it away. He looked at Sir Iwain without protest. Sir Lancylot. Sir Bors. Sir Lucan. He chewed and swallowed.
“This certainly tastes like the Bread Parade!” he declared. There was cheering all around. Hands dove across the table and snatched at things just out of reach. Jugs of wine and ale made their way around, their spiced aromas almost thick enough to be fog. Yet Gawain’s hands remained in his lap, fingernails biting the beds of those on the opposite hand. Surely the king hadn’t forgotten that the pentangle had a fifth point. All he needed was an acknowledging look.
Minutes passed. He was in agony, but when the moment came it still struck like a mallet on glass. His confidence was shattered, his bodily shards held together only by desperate hope masquerading as dignity. He was nothing unless he was something in the eyes of Arthyr Pendragynn.
They stared at each other, the king slowly chewing. Did he want something? Evidence of his nephew’s free-giving nature? Gawain snatched a cup of steaming soup, inhaled its scent, suppressed the puckering of his lower stomach, and then offered it to the knight next to him. Surely such a gesture was transparent, but its greater purpose was to make the young knight’s intent clear. Yes, he purposefully sat at that point of the pentangle.
“Free-giving, nephew?” the king asked across the table. One of its many enchantments must have been at play, because none quieted at the king’s words. Only Gawain seemed to hear them, carried as they were along the stone paths of the pentangle. The boy nodded. Arthyr’s eyes lingered a moment longer before drifting away. They didn’t roll. There was no frustration in his expression, but clearly no approval either. “Eat.”
Gawain’s heart had never sunk and thundered at the same time; the resulting feeling nearly brought tears to his eyes. He knew he would not be ejected from his place, but it felt like familial courtesy. It meant he might have to kneel and face the king’s disappointment in private, which would strike like an ax and lop off his head. Still, he had been told to eat.
The boy numbly reached out, bringing back the first soft thing his fingers ambled across: bread dumplings in thick brown gravy. The taste was marvelous, enough even to help him remember Yule. It was the season of giving, as decreed by the lord and redoubled by Arthyr every year that their lands grew. Even though five knights sat as the avatar of each virtue, Arthyr was the true embodiment of them all. The man celebrated the way only god himself could, because everything about him was of his own making.
Everything except for the green fellow and his matching horse. The Bread Parade, fed by the fires of the ovens and the endless train of servers, had gone strong for hours. The sun was still bright and high. The bread had so efficiently absorbed the ale that the knights still had their wits mostly about them. Yet, sober and surrounded by the wonders of the kingdom, many doubted their eyes as the fellow rode in from the sunny meadow outside the open hall.
A marble god in stature, his Goliath height was matched by the immensity of his steed, a creature high enough at the ear to dust chandeliers. The snort of its nostrils sent maidens fluttering like petals. Its mane and tail flowed in heavy vine-like curtains, braided with astounding complexity as if the history of an entire forest was recorded there. The beast had a cloak about it, or perhaps it didn’t, as the revelers found it impossible to tell for sure. A tassel from one angle was a strand of mane draped over the ear from another. Those lines like gold leaf couldn’t possibly be painted in, but every twitch of its flank had a matching sparkle in the color.
They were right to make way and scrunch against the walls, for the fellow’s aura spoke as much of enchantment as did his overall hue. The green bird nests nearest him groaned and twisted, startling the birds away to higher corners as the vines making them up swelled and hung. The grass about his horse’s hooves stretched up, only drooping under its new weight when the next step was taken. Tiny flowers crawled up the legs of the round table and peeked over its edge like a rainbow of rodent noses hoping to taste the crumbs of the Bread Parade.
“Don’t stop on my account,” the fellow said. Perhaps it was a soft tone to him, but it boomed from an arm’s length away and made all but those around the table want to cover their ears at any distance greater. The knights sat there stoically, arms crossed, ignoring the plants crawling over their thighs and ankles.
“Who are you stranger?” Arthyr asked, tone as friendly as ever.
“I should be no stranger to you, if you are the king called…” the fellow paused as if he couldn’t remember, “Arthyr Pendragynn. This body of mine was born in Logrys and raised in the Isles of Angylsy! I’ve been a citizen of your kingdom as long as you’ve had one.” He placed a giant hand upon his chest, once again shocking the whole of the celebration.
His chest was as big around as a barrel, but with none of its rotundity. The carved, or perhaps molded, shape of him from his shoulders on down was so far beyond perfection as to spill over into the disgusting. Green as a blanket of moss that had never seen sun, smooth and hairless as the rock that moss had grown upon, muscles bulging in symmetrical ideal places more than rivaling any of the roll-filled pans upon the table, everyone had simply assumed that it was a chest piece. It was not armor, but his very flesh that looked that way.
They had their first evidence that the man before them was dishonest. To be born one must have a mother and the two must have, at a point, been tethered. The green fellow lacked a navel. Missing too were the nipples, though only emotion told the onlookers that it was just as disturbing as the other parts of his mad makeup.
“The isles you say?” Sir Iwain interrupted, standing. He was one of the eldest knights, his expressions usually dour like an old dog in need of a whisker trimming. At that moment his eyes were alive and there was color in his cheeks, each word filling his open-hanging mouth like a groggy wasp that only needed to be jostled to sting. “You haven’t been back there any time in the recent, have you?”
“I’ve just come from there,” the fellow said. “Called back to my current home I’ve been, east of Holy Head, so I thought I would come and see the Yule of the king. Why do you ask after the isles?” Iwain was about to speak, but the king cleared his throat. The knight dropped back to his place, still staring at the green man intently.
“My man asks because his son, the esteemed Sir Uriel, knight of the round table, has gone missing,” the king informed. “He was last seen upon one of those islands. Even though we are not properly introduced yet, I ask if you’ve heard tell of him or perhaps even seen him. I should very much like to have him back.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t heard the name. You might describe him to me.” His tone was polite, but the timbre of his voice almost too sturdy, his smirk too flexible. His greenness exuded invulnerability, like a briar that could grow back anything trimmed within seconds. If nothing could hurt him, there would be no true sympathetic twinge for the lost knight. If that was his true demeanor, then it was a slight insult.
“He is strapping and bearded.”
“Much like myself.” He turned to Iwain and gasped falsely. “Father is that you? Auhauhauhauhauhauhauh!” The laugh shook the hall and forced the birds to vacate the stone completely. Expressions darkened and sharpened all around him, but it did nothing to curtail his mirth. A regular man should’ve been far out of breath by the time it finally faded.
“You’ll not make light of my knight’s fate again,” Arthyr said, firm in his own grin. Gawain knew the king’s soul was sturdier than any stone; it was the very quality that allowed him to pull Excalybur from the earth. Instead the boy looked to Sir Awain to see the actual damage done. The man would never shed a tear, they were stored away in the sacred lagoon of manhood accessible to all knights of the round table, but no amount of training could take the pain out of his eyes. They were soft with color, like a dog expecting a kick. Gawain’s own fury burned for his brothers as the exchange continued.
“My apologies,” the green fellow offered, clearly not meaning it.
“Sir Uriel would’ve carried a shield with my crest: a pentangle of these colors.” His hands encompassed the design on the table. “At its center would be the horned head of a lion, for I am Arthyr the lion, son of the dragon.”
“I have seen no such shield either. I wouldn’t worry too much; the isles are so beautiful that few ever choose to leave. I’m sure he’s alive and well, here at your Yule celebration in spirit.”
“We have not heard your name yet,” the king mentioned. “Introduce yourself.” The man’s horse flicked its neck and flared its nostrils, suddenly seeming like the one most offended by the proceedings. It was best for a rider to tug on the reins to keep an animal such disturbed from bucking, but there was no bridle or bit in place, only a saddle that might’ve just been a moss blanket. The fellow smacked the side of its neck, which steadied it.
“Oh, in truth I’ve never had a name that stuck. People see me coming and they know who I am: the green man. You may call me that or the other similar ones I’ve heard: the green fellow… or the green knight.”
“If you are a knight you must serve a lord,” Lancylot pointed out.
“Well I am here to serve my king!” he boomed back jovially. “I bring him a game for his Yule! An old challenge among the green, born in the forest from watching trees get chopped for roaring Yule fires.”
“What are the rules of this game?” the king asked, finally standing. “I will take any challenge brought to me, but if it will disturb today’s feasting we’ll have none of it now.”
“The feast is already disturbed,” Queen Gwenyvyr interrupted, casting her eyes aside. As Gawain thought, she couldn’t stand to look at the green knight. She was a perfect complement to her king; where he was rigid she could flow and where his eyes were arrows hers were the clouds in the sky. Caring for everyone in the kingdom was such a burden, and sometimes that caring couldn’t be extended to those set so obviously apart from it.
“The entirety of the challenge will take only two swings of this,” the fellow argued, reaching behind his back and grabbing and untying something from the saddle, or perhaps just tickling the tendrils holding it in place until they loosened. Out came a magnificent and peculiar weapon the likes of which Gawain had never set eyes on.
Its handle was nearly as long as the man was tall, and though its was made of wood it looked stronger than any steel and any grip that would dare wield it. Its strength came from its natural growth, for it was actually two bands of wood spiraling around each other like the horn of the fabled narwhale. The end near the ground was like a bulb, complete with a few blunt and uneven claws of root.
The blade on the other end was not to be outdone. An ax head unlike any other. Metal to be sure, but with an old bitter cold to it like slumbering ore. Smooth pits lined the edge, like those on the lips of snakes: tunnels down to a buried ogre’s mouth ready to slake with blood. The green knight had asked for the time of just two swings, but Gawain wondered what each swing would take and if the courage needed to heft such a vicious thing was included in that estimate.
The green knight dismounted and planted the end of the ax in the ground. His open robe had a collar of white fur wrapping around his neck and trailing down near his ankles, but its color was faded and stained with the dust of travel. He wore no shoes; tiny sprouts with twin leaves peeked out from the dark soil compacted under his toenails. He took a deep breath and his chest rustled like a forest canopy, like a tiger could be lurking in the branches of his lungs.
“The game is simple. I will allow any man here one swing of this ax upon my nape with no argument or resistance. This man must only make a promise in return, that a year and a day from that swing they will come and find me at my home so that I may take a swing in kind. That way fine halls such as this will always know visitors and these visitors will be true men that give their all to a friendly challenge.”
There was muttering all around. He couldn’t be serious. It was no wonder they’d never laid eyes on a green man before if they all went around offering themselves up for beheading. This fellow must’ve been the last. It may have been a cultural obsession of his people, since no game had ever been completed. They were a people who cast dice and thought they never stopped rolling.
“That is a suspicious request,” King Arthyr declared as he slowly circled around the table. “I am not, nor have I ever been, an executioner. If something has gone wrong in your mind, or more likely that rotting green body of yours, I can take you to my scholars of medicine. Better they poke at you and test your humors than simply ending your pain here at my hand.” The two men stood face to face, though the green knight was hands taller.
“There is no sickness King Arthyr. This is but a game, though I do warn you that I intend to win.”
“How are you going to win without your head?” Lancylot interjected, ripping into a sausage because decorum wouldn’t allow him to do it to anything else.
“A player should never reveal his strategy before putting it to use,” the green knight advised, tapping the side of his nose. A ladybird beetle flew out of the nostril like a bat from a bell. “My opponent will find out in a year and a day.”
“I think he will learn sooner than that,” the king challenged. “I accept your game man of green. We will do it here and now, with your cheek laid flat upon the edge of the round table.
“This is vulgar my king,” the queen complained. “There are many here who have no desire to see this man’s head roll across our dining table.”
“The dignity of the meal will be maintained,” the king said without turning to her, “so long as nobody mistakenly takes a bite from his ear.” The knights laughed, more as a show of confidence than actual amusement. Gawain tried to join them, but the falsity of it stuck in his throat as Arthyr held out his hands. The boy understood the king’s confidence; he believed the enchantments of the round table would prevent any harm from coming to him directly or even nullify a curse that might spew out of the man’s neck.
The green knight hefted the weapon and dropped it into the king’s arms. It must have been extraordinarily heavy, for even though the king was sure-footed the color in his cheeks intensified as if he’d been sat on by a bear that had just enjoyed its own Bread Parade.
Off came the green robe with the white trim, revealing his neck, which was as powerfully muscular as the rest of him. His back was bare of markings, even of a single freckle, as if he were a young man who’d never carried a single burden. Gawain realized it was impossible to guess his age thanks to his greenery. His beard and deep voice stood in arguing contrast with his missing features and smooth skin. Like one of the old gods he was, born fully formed from a parent’s split head or spilled drop of blood.
Down he went, not to one knee but two, fully supplicating himself. His cheek touched the inlaid stone of the table and a hush fell across it. The bread and stew stopped steaming all at once as if their flavors were snuffed out. To Gawain it meant the bristling reaction of the table’s enchantments to the stranger’s touch.
“Before we begin and finish,” Arthyr said, “I would like to know why the color of your skin and of your horse is as green as a clover buried among others.” He positioned himself beside the man, ax braced against the ground, angle already making the blade look heavy and thirsty.
“There are untamed lands, Arthyr Pendragynn, that do not respond to the rule of man. They flee at the sight of a kingdom such as yours, never to return once the first fence is hammered in for sheep. Everything is green there; I only look strange to you now because I have hopped the fences and submitted myself to the… unique amusements of Logrys and Camylot.”
“I see. If you are ready… it is time to observe whether you are green through and through.” The king lifted the ax with a grunt.
“This is just a knight bowing before a lord. There’s no need to be so dramatic. Take your swing.” Arthyr was a moment from obliging when Sir Gawain shot to his feet and called out for him to hold. The ax’s weight required it be slowed rather than outright stopped, and it barely avoided his green nape.
“My king… I think I should be the one to play this game.”
“It’s already started boy!” Lancylot scoffed.
“I’m addressing his highness!” the boy squawked back. Arthyr’s eyes were on him: the same expectant expression from when he first saw the boy at the pink point of free-giving. It told him to get on with whatever he had to say, and to do it quickly. “How can I call myself the free-giving knight of this Yule if I do not offer what I have? The king should be relaxing by the queen’s side, so I offer him my participation in this game so he might go back to her.
To this green fellow I offer to give him his challenge, for there’s nothing simpler to give than a mere release of the arms, letting the weight of the ax deliver itself. I want him to know that while his offer is appreciated, there is more to being a knight than simply accepting a challenge brought to you. You must offer yourself to them! Throw your heart into the open! Freely give it to the world and see what comes in return.”
“Now those were some words!” the green knight declared, laughing as he did before, none of the impact lost even with his back bent and his cheek squished. He didn’t even angle to look at Gawain. “Give that young man his turn!”
“You understand what that means?” the king asked his nephew. “You’ll be held to your word. In a year and a day you must let this man swing.” The other knights snickered, thinking the boy was being patronized. It was hardly a worrying promise, since in all their adventures they’d never seen a man heft an ax from the grave. Gawain smiled as well, but the king didn’t join them. What did he think would happen? No matter. He’d already cast himself, and the free-giving never took anything back.
“Yes, I understand. I must give this green knight the same warning he gave me though: I intend to win.”
“Let us play!” the fellow bellowed. “At this point I seem to care more about the warmth of your bread than you do!”
“Very well,” the king said, flicking his jaw to beckon Gawain forth. The young man circled around and took the ax’s weight, forced to use his shoulder to hold the massive thing aloft. Arthyr didn’t wait around to see the results, returning immediately to Gwenyvyr’s side and taking his seat. He eve resumed eating, though the other knights couldn’t stomach the anticipation well enough for that.
“Here it comes, green knight!” Sir Gawain declared, pulling the ax to its full height and preparing to push it over.
“Yes, merry Yule to us all! Swing!” The young knight pushed, but fearing it wouldn’t be fast enough he jumped on the handle as well, wrapping his limbs around it and riding it on the way down. The pitted blade met flesh. Thwahk! So clean was the slice that the green knight’s head didn’t travel across the table nor so much as wobble. For a moment it but wore a wide-banded necklace of warm air: a decorative escaping breath.
Relief flooded Gawain even as he stared at the stump of the man’s neck, but then the blood came. The amount was not what astonished, as that many buckets was implied by the man’s enormous size. No, the aspect that even the most combat-tested knight failed to appreciate was the pressure created by such a powerful heart. Some of the swell to his muscles must have been the tautness it provided; now it expressed itself as a sloppy eruption that reached all the way across the round table.
The man’s floral nature and scent of loam and honeysuckle had suggested that his insides were powered by naught but dew, but his life spilled as crimson as any man’s. Every loaf and crumb upon the table was affected, dyed red and glistening. The warm lumps soaked it up quickly, some of them collapsing under their new weight. Pots and bowls of soup were turned as if by the same curse holy god put upon the Nyle when he was displeased.
The stroke was clean as could be, and the head initially still, but the geyser pushed it and sent it spinning across the table, only stopping a hand away from Queen Gwenyvyr. Gawain gripped the wet edge of the table and peeked across, horrified to see her expression. In her wisdom she had lowered her veil mid-strike, but it was not fine enough to keep some of the finer droplets of blood from reaching her cheeks, which struck like a disrespectful slap.
She threw her hand over mouth as her cheeks swelled. If Gawain didn’t know that a fair creature such as her was incapable of vomit, he would’ve thought she was holding her sickness back. She fled from the table, disappearing down a corridor, a handful of maidens following after her. Gawain was nearly paralyzed by the lidless disgust he’d witnessed in her eyes, but his shame overpowered that sensation and put him on his feet.
“My king! My deepest apologies for what I’ve done! I never imagined she would be so struck-”
“Relax Sir Gawain!” Arthyr addressed him. The king grabbed a drenched loaf of dark bread, ripped the end from it and took a hearty bite, showing no indication that the blood sopped up affected the taste at all. “You should never apologize for winning. He called the game friendly, so that’s what it was, no matter the outcome.”
“But the queen-”
“She’s just awaiting the next course. Lancylot, attend to her. See that she’s here once this is cleaned away.”
“Of course Arthyr.” The knight crawled out from the table enthusiastically and then practically skipped out of sight. The king snapped his fingers; the attendants went to work removing all the evidence of the green man’s visit. Gawain had barely caught his breath before the reddened food was gone and fresh bread was brought in. Washcloths glided across the pentangle, letting its true colors shine through once more.
Several people attempted to wrangle the green horse, but it refused to even turn around, knocking those who came close over with its neck and biting with a fierceness normally reserved for wolves.
“Pile his body on the beast’s back; it’ll leave with its rider,” someone suggested gruffly as Gawain returned to the free-giving point and sat once more. Sir Bors went to assist in the removal of the giant man, grabbing the base of his neck and pulling. He was forced to release it when it didn’t drag properly, instead springing up like a toad released from under a glass. The crowd gasped as the headless knight steadied on his feet and stood tall.
Sir Gawain’s breath left him, draining out along with his awareness. What was he seeing? The man was undoubtedly strong in the utmost, so perhaps this was just a reflex when it had access to such power. Unfortunately this dying twitch seemed very deliberate as it raised one leg over the round table and leaned forward. The head was still near Arthyr, and it seemed its owner was going to crawl across the table and reclaim it.
“Stay this perversion!” King Arthyr ordered from his seat. The body froze. “Magic it is, as we all expected, but undoubtedly dark. You must come from a black place, a place of death, and not a green one as your flesh claims. The details do not concern me, but you will not sully my table with your filth!” He didn’t spare a glance for his nephew, but the young man silently thanked him with everything he had. If the green knight could not reclaim his head he would stay out of sorts. Not even he could swing that ax properly without eyes to guide it. The game would have to be canceled.
The flat red crown of their guest had no mouth to protest with, but it didn’t even sputter rudely. Instead it slammed its bare foot down on the edge of the table. The entire structure bucked into the air: an impossible feat of strength for a man let alone a single leg. Another round of food was lost to the floor, but the head popped into the air at a perfect angle for the body to snatch it. The knights scrambled away, lest they be crushed by the round table as it wobbled back to stillness. Gawain hadn’t moved at all, and was disheartened when the table didn’t destroy him. At leas that would’ve been a death in the proper place.
“A brilliant swing! The green knight declared, head held forward and only as high as his sternum. “Auhauhauhauhauhauhauhauh!” There was no air as ingredient for his mirth, but the sound filled the hall all the same. Grass grew everywhere, breaking against the base of the stone walls like crashing waves. Vines from outside crawled over the crumbled remains of the ceiling and draped down as banners, leaves as big as any loaf of the parade. “Thank you Sir Gawain! Polite you were, using such strength and speed. I hardly felt a thing!”
“Be gone from here,” the king demanded. The knights didn’t have their weapons, but with one word they would pile on the green man and pummel him until he was mulch. There was no protest, just a beaming smile. The separation of mind and heart was truly of no consequence to him, for he thought it much more pressing to don his cloak before his head and brush off the shoulders with his free hand. The horse walked up to its rider placidly.
“Where do I…” Gawain stammered, pale as cream. “Where do I go?” The green knight did not immediately answer him, instead lifting the ax, still glistening with his blood, and driving its handle into the ground. There was a loud crack, and the breeze that invigorated only the plants intensified. Patches of the grass swirled like miniature storms; grasshoppers and beetles abandoned it in favor of the round table and any sock they could cling to.
“Leave the ax there and let it grow,” the knight instructed, swinging one leg over his horse and settling his head in his lap. “When it blooms it will be time for you to depart, so that you arrive at my Green Chapel early enough to be my guest. You will know the hospitality of my Yule before we play again.”
“I’ve never heard of any Green Chapel,” the young man said hoarsely. Excuses snapped about in his soul, desperately trying to bite their way out of his throat, but he held them back. Such simpering would disgust the king and his fellow knights.
“Head east past Holy Head. That’s the only guidance a smart whip like you needs.” The knight patted the horse’s neck and the beast turned toward the sun. “Thank you for your generosity!” A few moments later the green knight was lost in the glare of daylight, but his laughter echoed in the open hall. Auhauhauhauhauhauhauhauhauh!
The extra day, the peculiar part of their fated second encounter in a year and a day, was the piece that most people latched onto when trying to give Sir Gawain hope. It wasn’t a single year left in his life, but a year… and a day. So much could be done in one day alone. That extra day was like an extra week! A month! Having that second beginning squeezed into his execution date was like having an entire second year. He would feel it when that time came, and what a glorious day it would be!
That’s what the other knights told him when they slapped him on the shoulder. He’d best hurry and mature into a full and noble man, because only a boy would not savor that wondrous final day. Their encouragement worked, aided as it was by King Arthyr and Queen Gwenyvyr. Gawain was allowed to ride with his uncle into battles normally reserved for his most tested soldiers, for they had to use his bravery and skill while they had it.
Gwenyvyr told him she had a lifetime of affection for him grown and harvested inside her already, and that she would have to deliver unto him a glut of it with every departure to make sure it was all properly expended. She insisted no other knight could have it, for it was incompatible with all but the person she made it for. This he believed, for the kisses upon his forehead and her stroke of his cheeks had a nature nothing like when she held the king’s hand, and nothing like when she grabbed Lancylot’s upper arm.
It was a year of great accomplishments for Logrys and the Castle Camylot. Bishop Baldwyn, the head of the church under Arthyr, declared marriage an absolute right for every man and woman. All they had to do, if there wasn’t a farthing to their name for the official documents and blessings, was make it to any of the open halls of the castle that accepted guests as gruff as the green knight. If they passed under the stone and entered the enchanted perpetual spring hand in hand, their love was legitimate in the eyes of king, overruling any and all preceding rules or customs.
This meant the outer areas of the grounds were in a constant state of celebration. There were so many pastries about that even the birds tired of their sweetened crumbs. Endless dancing stomped out the vigor the green knight had put into the grass, clearing circles in the dirt ideal for barefoot first dances.
These were the scenes that Gawain rode into each time he returned with the others. After days of riding, parched and hungry, someone unknown to him would run up giddily and insist he drink deep from a jug of wine. His body craved water, but it accepted all the same. So fatigued was he that his body entered a state of shock upon being expected to participate in the revelry. His muscles went limp and he rolled off his horse’s side, always caught by a celebrant. From there he was passed around, limp as a sea star from a sun-soaked tide pool.
His body learned to run on anything freely given, so he flourished in the desperate rat stews of adventuring and the concentrations of sweets at the castle that could make a wasp wince. There were many gifts for him as well, given wholly and earnestly as the owners assumed they would be able to reclaim them in less than a year’s time.
Many a fair maiden sought his hand in marriage, knowing full well that a year of his company would be worth the effort to forever be considered part of Arthyr’s court. Gawain had to, sometimes quite painfully, turn them all away. It was a knight’s duty to honor his lord with his marriage, and it would be an absolute sin to take a wife just to enjoy carnal pleasures in his final year. Without the commitment of an entire life, he could not be properly wed. He knew that the freely given love of Queen Gwenyvyr would be enough, her tender touch more nourishing than anything else in Logrys.
They battled a fire-breathing dragon in the lowlands, chasing after the slithering thing even through a stampede of rams with their fleece blazing across their backs. They toppled a mad goth in a fortress that cracked and crumbled the moment its master expired. There was even an invasion from the sea, but it was effectively repelled from Angylsy. Search as he did on that expedition, Gawain found no sign of Iwain’s son Uriel. Satisfied as he was with the greatest year of his life, his most singular hope had been uncovering the fate of the young man. He considered his old friend to now be even more of a kindred spirit, as they would both soon be missing knights, vanished before they could stun the world with their valor.
The air turned cold on the final trip back to Camylot. His promise crept back into his thoughts, once for every leaf that turned orange and fell around the kingdom. The warmth of the grounds couldn’t protect him either, for the ax was still there. It did as its owner assured, branching out over the months. Its handle stayed the same shape and size, but when winter took its first breath the blade was invisible from the outside among the leaves.
Early in its growth Gawain would lean on it and tell the tale of his freely-given life to visitors and children. He almost felt good about it, a certain swelling in his sense of self, as the tale babbled out. No, he was not frightened, for a knight is always ready to give his life in service of his king. Death matters not, as long as chivalry is upheld. As long as you never blink in the face of danger. As long as you never cry over the loss of something that was never yours to begin with.
They called him Sir Gawain the seasonal, for his time was as clear as each of the four. All could have him, but only for a time, and any sadness over his passing would be unnatural. Gawain no longer had the vigor for these claims though. The small tree was a sore sight indeed, a pressure robbing him of sleep, which he didn’t appreciate even as it gave him more time in his dwindling year.
Despite this he managed to lose track of the date. There was no time left for travel, so Arthyr had held him back simply by making no more offers. The two never talked after their last return. Gawain lost himself in the library, reading of those that came before and the miracles of the one god.
Part of him assumed that if he stayed out of natural light time would not pass. What was a year or a day to a piece of furniture, something that only determined time by cycles of dusting, cycles which could be permanently postponed if only people stopped paying attention.
The castle’s enchantments were still mysteries to him as well, and in exploring every webbed corner of it he hoped to find one that could save his life. Sometimes, when he found a passageway he’d never entered previously, his heart swelled with fantasies of success. Each beat was a wet bursting thump, tears and hope merging to drown his eyes. It was nearly unbearable, putting his hands on a door, praying with all his might that the other side would be another unknown part of the castle. He wanted the magic to take him, to put him outside real places and into looping corridors lined with portraits of heroes gone and yet to come.
It was not to be; he always found his way back to the kitchen, or the stores, or the bell tower. Some days he just went to the round table’s crevice in the wall, squeezed himself in alongside it like a boring book hoping not to be read, and just pressed his forehead against free-giving rose quartz.
The day came when Queen Gwenyvyr asked him to go outside and fetch her something. Brilliant she was, because a request from her made him forget everything else. There wasn’t a single thought in his head about how he hadn’t seen the sun unfiltered by glass in fifteen days. She had been counting, and wouldn’t allow him to feign forgetfulness.
Gawain froze, grass between his toes, as he realized he’d walked right into the ax’s refuge. He forgot what he was supposed to get for her, both his heart and mind riddled with holes, shot through with raw red, one opening for each flower upon the branches of the ax. He didn’t dare approach, but he couldn’t leave either, especially not when King Arthyr’s hand clapped down on his shoulder.
The hall was empty of everyone but its birds and bugs, surely by design of the king and queen. This was to be his farewell, and like the seasons no one was to notice the exact time and circumstances of the transition. As far as the other knights knew he would still be there the next day, and each would have their own final memory of him.
No words were exchanged between the two at first, but Arthyr made everything clear by approaching the ax. With his bare hands, one by one, he stripped the branches of their leaves and flowers and snapped them off. The pile of kindling grew quickly, some of the snapped ends glittering with drops of the king’s blood. There were splinters in his hands, but he made not a sound until they were all gone. Even then, all he gave was a grunt as he grabbed the base of the ax and pulled with all his might.
The strength it took was incredible, for its roots were five times deeper than the length of its branches. The ground itself was pulled, full of the thousand pops of smaller roots grown over the ax’s. The rich smell of loam filled the hall and even seemed to darken it some, as if they’d suddenly moved into a mole’s den. When it was fully extricated the king even looked down the hole to make sure no fey creature stared back. Even his might was no match for the thickness of the roots, so the king barked at someone waiting just outside, telling them to enter. In came the master of the stables. He had a horse by the reins in one hand and a hatchet in the other, the latter of which he passed to Arthyr.
Thwuck! Thwuck! Thwuck! While the king hacked away at the roots the master of stables approached Gawain and handed over the reins. She was a beautiful horse with a velvety coat like yellow cake. Her whitish mane and tail smelled of fine flowery soap, as she was freshly washed for the journey. Gawain got two great breaths of it when the animal affectionately nudged his cheek.
“She’s called Gringolet,” the master said, clucking his tongue as if he didn’t know how much information was necessary. Thwuck! Thwuck! Gawain was about to thank the man, but he wouldn’t look the young knight in the eye. “She’s a smart one, so she knows the way back.” There it was. She was his horse because he was doomed. When he took the green man’s swing Gringolet would stare blankly at the object that used to be her rider, eventually reaching the conclusion that she should turn back and find a whole knight at Camylot.
The stable master retreated with his head down, but no sooner was he out of sight than Queen Gwenyvyr appeared. Now it was Gawain’s turn to avert his eyes. He was ashamed that it had taken her prompting to get him to the fresh air. There was no judgment in her eyes though, as she pinched his chin between two fingers and pulled his face to hers.
“I know you will make us proud,” she said, planting one kiss on his forehead, one over each eye, and one on each cheek. “Another set of five for you, Sir Gawain the seasonal.”
“Another, my lady?”
“Yes, you’re ornamented with them. You have your five senses with which you’ve enjoyed the bounty of Camylot.” Thwuck! “Five fingers upon each hand that you used to swing your sword in its defense.” Thwuck! “You are all five of the knightly virtues: pious, chaste, chivalrous, friendly, and most generous.” Thwuck! “Last of all you have those virtues represented upon this shield as the pentangle.” She presented him a freshly-polished shield of Arthyr’s knights: pentangle rendered in the same colors as the round table. At its center was the roaring face of the horned lion.
Gawain took it and stared into the beast’s eyes. Nothing could make them blink. No amount of rain could look like tears upon its cheeks. Surely the engraver had Arthyr as the model for it, replacing his cheeks with whiskers and fangs but keeping the honor and force of will. There was no chance his face could ever bear such fortitude, and that knowledge made him sink. The queen would not allow him very far though.
“This is the ferocious side that you show your foes, but it is not what you fight for.” She took his hands and convinced them to turn the shield around and reveal the engraving inside. There was a portrait of Mary the virgin, mother of the one god, her skin like gold and her eyes as soft as any kiss the queen had ever given him. “Let her remind you of the home that cannot be taken from you: the kingdom of god”
“Five thanks would be terribly poor I think,” Gawain whimpered, “so know that when I reach that kingdom I will still send one to you each day until we are reunited.” The two embraced. Thwuck! It hurt terribly when she pulled away, like someone tearing his own roots, but he did nothing to slow her. She was gone a moment later and he was once again alone with the king. When he turned Arthyr was stood there before him, heavy ax balanced in his arms. All the roots had been cut away, leaving pale circles dotted with droplets of sap.
He dumped the weapon into the young man’s arms; he shuddered under the weight. The king’s expression was again impenetrable. He didn’t smile, but there was no anger. His bottom lip was a cliff, and anything that spilled from it would be final, like a man plunging into a drowning sea.
“I expect you to take his swing… and I expect you to come back.” He didn’t wait for Gawain to respond, simply walking past him. It was down to just the young knight, his expectant horse, and his obligation. Every celebration that had clamored for his attention in recent months had been about coupling, about togetherness.
Left alone like that, in his darkest moment, something snapped inside the knight. His lip quivered like a poisoned leech knotting itself, but no tears fell. He felt them dropping down the inside of his eyes, the back of his cheeks, and into his chest, pooling in the splinters and strands of the snapped thing somewhere between his shoulders and within his spine.
The snap was not clean, the two pieces still held together, and as long as they did he would have the power to move, the instinct that he was still alive and still, possibly, worth something. He took his first step toward the Green Chapel. The hair on his nape stood, already feeling the biting wind of a lonely Yule.
East past Holy Head was his only direction, so that’s where he rode upon the back of Gringolet. The change in weather was immediate, as soon as he passed the last invisible fence of Camylot: the one that convinced all the sheep at its borders to go no further. His horse waded through a sea of the animals one moment and an empty pasture coated in frost the next. The last shepherd he saw had expected him, equipping him with a woolen cloak against the cold.
It was seven days until the Bread Parade, and eight until the full year and a day had passed. Holy Head was behind him after the first day, and so too was the warmth in his stomach. His obligation was to give the green knight his swing, but how exactly he went about getting there was left up to him. As such Gawain had packed no food, secretly hoping he would starve to death along the way. Anything was better than being cut in two and mounted like a hunting trophy.
Arthyr’s words gave him pause. The king expected him to make it back alive. How? Didn’t he know what a cruel expectation that was, to ask so much beyond his capability? Merlyn had not been there to give him an enchantment, and the king had offered no talisman or ward to armor his nape. It was impossible. Yet he set the expectation all the same. The only effect it could have was ensuring that Gawain died unhappily: ashamed of his last moment and afraid for his memory.
His hours passed in turmoil as he apportioned levels of disgrace to each possible fate. To have his head swept under the green knight’s mossy rug was not the ultimate failure. Giving up before even reaching the man’s gates was worse, so he couldn’t allow hunger or cold to take him until then.
This realization was nearly too late, for when he came out of his head he found himself entrenched in a terrible blizzard. It was late in the day, but the sun should have still been visible. Instead it was flapping curtains of snow in all directions. It fell so fast and heavily that he couldn’t even tell his bearing; Gringolet’s prints were filled in almost as soon as they were made.
Food, shelter, and fire were needed swiftly, but all they could do was go on in the dead white until they found something, anything, that wasn’t just the dregs of winter. Sir Gawain rubbed Gringolet’s neck to warm her and pushed her forward, reminding himself that this journey was much more difficult for her. All he had to do was die the right way, while she had to make the trip twice and explain to the other steeds how she had lost her noble knight, her one possession in the world.
Krk! Gawain pulled the reins. What was that sound? Any sticks buried under the snow were too soaked to snap so cleanly, so that left only one possibility. Gawain dismounted, but he underestimated how stiff his legs had become and collapsed to the ground. Krk! The impact was painful on his knees, but that was good, exactly what he would expect if he was to be saved. He swept the fresh snow away with his arms, tossing it so quickly that it startled Gringolet and sent her out of reach.
That didn’t matter, for there was another animal much closer, swimming between his knees, paying no attention to the blizzard above. He had ridden over a large frozen pond. If not for the lucky crack they would’ve passed over it completely, and his stomach never would’ve forgiven him. Not much could be discerned through the ice, but he could tell it wasn’t the most appetizing fish: gray-green with large scales. No doubt a bottom feeder.
“But I am a bottom feeder as well,” he muttered with numb lips. “My head rolls already across the Green Chapel floor. All I can eat are the crumbs my tongue can reach. It’s more than I deserve.” A second fish swam under the first. It was a feast; all he had to do was take it. His mission was, in a sense, friendly, so he’d taken no sword. While the shield was likely strong enough to bash a hole in the ice, it was nowhere as tempting as the ax, which had fallen from Gringolet’s back and landed next to him.
Sir Gawain hefted it, his feet compressing the snow nearly to nothing. He already knew he had the strength to behead a man with it, so that would be sufficient for a little ice. Once the thirsty blade was centered over the cleared patch he did just as before, leaping onto the ax and wrapping his arms and legs around it. Together they impacted: Kirkak!
He should’ve known better than to trust that ax to give him an expected result. Man and weapon tumbled together as chunks of the ice broke up and collapsed. Braced he was for the soaking cold, but there was nothing but air and a strange light. What he struck, quite painfully, may have been the bed of a pond at some point, but now it was bone dry. As he rolled off the weapon and onto his back the ringing in his ears faded back to sensation. A crackling fire. The oily smell of fish skin peeling away as it roasts. Soil and pebbles between his fingers.
“Ye brokyn my roof, ye daft Celt.” Gawain picked himself up at the sound of the voice, but he couldn’t rise thanks both to the pain and the blinding light on the other side of the campfire. The one glimpse he took was agonizing: a burn that seemed to circle his iris even after he threw up a hand to block it. All he saw was a pitch black circle surrounded by beams of light like the sun’s. An eclipse, but somehow underground and on the head of… something. Something that could talk.
“What happened?” Gawain grunted, grabbing a bruise on his side. “Who are you?”
“I alrydy told ye what happynt.” The voice was low and gruff, like a boar furious that someone had taught it to speak. “Ye lettyn yn the draft.” Gawain couldn’t look up without seeing the hostile light again, so he rolled his head backward. The ice was above him as a ceiling, but much more curious was that he could still see the fish. There were nearly twenty total, somehow swimming in the skin of ice itself.
“Why are the fish like that?”
“Ynt fysh. Just glamyrs I cast wyth my eye.” The dialect was not totally foreign to the young knight. He’d heard it spoken many times, but always from strange mouths: sharp-toothed, purple-lipped, or something else distracting. It was a sign of a fey creature: something originally from a magical realm where thoughts did all of the talking. Even without the slanted words he would’ve known the creature wasn’t human, for he could see its blubbery crossed legs as it sat. The feet were much too large and tipped in sharp gray nails with stony striations. Its giant gut and cavernous navel puckered with wrinkles and then relaxed with each breath. It had to be nearly twice as tall as he: a troll or an ogre of some kind.
“They’re illusions? Why would you do that? I never would’ve fallen if I wasn’t after something to eat in this horrid cold.”
“S’posed to attract anymals fyr me to yt: wolves ynd cats. Not Celts.” Gawain sensed the ogre reaching so he recoiled, but it just grabbed a stick from the fire with a speared fish on it. It chewed loudly, the soft spine popping in its mouth.
“You have fish… so what happened to all the water?”
“The whole pond?” Its only reply was a scratch of its stomach. “Could I… perhaps share in your meal? I am a knight in King Arthyr’s court, and I can leave you a favor and words that will let others know you helped me. It could be of great benefit to you in the future.” He crawled toward the fire, already reaching for one of the crisp blackened tails when he felt something white hot on the back of his hand. The skin blistered immediately. Gawain scurried backward, head once again staring at the illusory fish above.
“I don’t lyve yn the future; ryght now I want all my fysh.” Gawain’s hand hadn’t been close enough to be burned by the fire, and the ogre hadn’t even shifted. It must’ve been that eclipsing light.
“There is something enchanted upon your head,” he guessed. His back found a crumbling wall; it was not as far from the fey as he would’ve liked to be.
“Ye worse at lysenin’ than my yrywax. It’s yn my head, not on it. My eye has the ynchantmynt.” It tossed a stick at him in a fashion somewhere between playful and disrespectful. It was covered in charred scales and oil, but there wasn’t a glob of flesh left for him. The ogre grabbed another one and bit into it; Gawain sensed it was the last fish. He didn’t dare protest, because he’d discerned the creature’s true identity.
Common folks from all around Logrys reported the monsters they’d seen to the castle; many such reports were what incited a knight’s journey. Sometimes a beast was always the lesser of two evils, and it wandered the kingdom for years making trouble that wasn’t quite disturbing enough to earn a knight’s ire.
The Cyclipse was one of them. Gawain knew it from two reports, its name from the second. It was an ogre standing higher than any horse with a single giant eye in its head. Where the dim thing had gotten an enchantment for that eye was impossible to guess. It couldn’t have done such a thing itself, for fey creatures didn’t cast spells. Magic was in their blood, part of their being, so to them such actions were as grotesque and odd as smearing their own waste across the walls of their home.
A one-eyed ogre was a rather special home for magic. Surely a man with an enchanted eye would want to make a pair of them, but just as the round table feuded with other magical objects nearby, such an act might cause one of those eyes to pop out of the head and journey in search of a new home. The ogre had but a lonely pupil, and the magic had turned it into something as blinding as any eclipse, apparently also granting it the ability to cast tricks of the light and to narrow its gaze to a burning beam.
“What are ye doin’ out hyr anyways?” it asked after its final belch.
“I seek the Green Chapel,” he answered truthfully, thinking perhaps the Cyclipse knew its fellow magical deviant. The monster stood and stomped on its fire until it was nothing but coals, its skin so thick that the heat caused no pain. The light shifted; it must’ve looked away from the young knight. The only other thing to see in the dry pond was the ax.
“Ye got no reason to go there,” the Cyclipse said with an amused snort.
“What do you mean? I must fulfill a promise.”
“I know that green man. He grows all ovyr evyrythin’ lyke moss. Ye’ve alrydy got that ax, no doubts made by hym. Gyve it tyme and it’ll plant itsylf and grow up ynto a byg strong chapyl on its own.”
“That weapon has a different fate,” Gawain argued. He hugged himself; now that the fire was doused it became apparent just how much cold the hole he made was letting in. “Why did you put out the fire?”
“To kyll ye.”
“I’ve heard stories of you. You’re the Cyclipse. You steal livestock and blind the foolish. You would be the fool if you killed me; the king would be on your trail in no time at all!”
“I thynk not. He doesn’t care about ye if he sent ye to the green man. Celts rarely leave that place, ‘bout as oftyn as a fly leaves a frog’s mouth.”
“What reason have you to harm me? I’ll happily apologize for the hole! Throw me back up there and I’ll cover it!”
“Yf I let ye go you’ll tell the farmyrs and shypyrds where I byn hydyn’. I won’t move untyl wyntyr’s ovyr.”
“You have my word that I won’t tell a soul! You are right that it is a promise I hate to make! Normally I could not, but my honor is at stake. I have to be at the Green Chapel in just a few days or I will have broken my freely-given promise. Nothing matters to me more than upholding! Not even my life, for I’m going to have it ended anyway, but it must be under the blade of that ax, at the hands of the green knight!” He tried to lunge for the ax, but an invisible beam of heat caught the tip of his fingers and made the dirt between them sizzle and steam.
“Ye stayin’ ryght there ‘tyl ye freeze to death. I know how ye Celts fyght; ye wait ‘tyl we gyt close and then ye pull out lyttle knyves and hot pokyrs. Ye’ll stab my eye because ye know I only got one. It’ll take me much longyr to freeze, so each one of us stays where we are.” Sir Gawain had difficulty comprehending the creature’s intelligence. Ogres could speak, but they were usually vicious brutes.
There was time to think it over as the cold set in. The beast didn’t have much else to say, only occasionally muttering to itself about people trying to steal the eye right out of its head. Gawain realized that its intelligence was the only reason it was still alive, able to keep itself out of Arthyr’s gaze with hideouts, strategies, and food of little consequence.
Killing it would’ve been an obvious blessing for Logrys, like ending a blight that came every year but took only the old and weak. It hadn’t happened because there was no glory in it, no story that could be told around the roaring fireplaces of Camylot as the successful knight swung a wooden spoon in place of his sword and a platter instead of his shield.
Gawain had heard so many that he already knew how the retelling of such a quest would suck the excitement from a room: My chin was low instead of high, for I could not look at it. It had to be stopped or several more sheep might never bleat again! When we were finally in the same earthen hole we fought to a standstill; nay, our fight was a standstill, as I could not move without being scalded by forces invisible.
His teeth were chattering again. His fingers were wet sticks, so their rubbing now did nothing for his arms. There was something a little warm in the back of his throat, but he feared it was a trickle of blood through a crack in flesh that was never supposed to dry. Meanwhile the ogre hadn’t taken a single step. His eclipsing eye still blazed.
“Just burn a hole through my heart with that eye of yours!” he chattered. “This waiting is insufferable!”
“So ye can pull out a myrror and blynd me ryght back? No.” The knight winced. He hadn’t even thought of that, but the inside of his shield, just under Mary the virgin’s portrait, was polished enough to reflect. It could’ve worked if the shield was down there with him and not tied to Gringolet’s back… Gringolet! “Why are Celt men only afraid of slow deaths? They all take ye to the same place.”
There must have been another court somewhere, one for the fey equivalent of kings and knights. The Cyclipse must have sat there during feasts serving stewed human babes and roasted horse hearts, hearing tales of glorious defeat at the hands of their enemies. It must’ve heard tell of cyclops that let their eyes get too close to pins and gorgons that didn’t break every mirror. Gawain had no idea monsters could be so calculating, but he had one advantage. The beast was alone.
“Gringolet!” the knight screamed, throat raw. “Gringolet!” The Cyclipse took a step back, startled by the outburst. Its head was directly under the edge of the hole. If a thundering horse’s weight was enough…
“What’s a Gryngolyt?” it asked, repeating its question louder when Gawain didn’t cease his shouting. “What tryck ys that? A new one?! I know them all! I know evyry last-” Hooves hammered the ice in a line above it, even scattering the fish they couldn’t harm. Kurrk! Gringolet’s leg plunged through the hole just as another slab of the ice gave way. It collapsed onto the Cyclipse’s head, knocking him to his bottom.
It didn’t flatten the monster, so the slab was left at an angle, creating a ramp that the horse slid down. She panicked in the dirt, as she’d never been beneath the ground before. There was no time to calm her neighing and bucking, for the monster already had its meaty fingers wrapped around the ice slab, lifting it off.
“I see you!” Gawain blurted. The sting was gone from his eyes as the light was muted through the ice sheet. He could make one strike with his head held high and aim for something more than the bridge of a hairy toe. The knight scrambled forward, crawled under his horse, and snatched the handle of the ax. It might’ve taken more strength than he had to actually swing it, especially with his numbed raw hands, but no sooner had he lifted it than Gringolet kicked the end of it, sending man and weapon swinging over the fire pit. Gawain’s body slapped against the ice as the ax wrapped around and cut deep into the ogre’s gut.
“No!” the beast roared. The ice before its eye turned to slush; by the time it reached Gawain’s cheek it was scalding water. The knight tumbled backward, but realized it wasn’t finished yet. The strike was hardly a poke despite its depth, only puncturing a layer of gray fat that smelled of dry-rotted pork. He grabbed the end of the ax’s handle and pivoted to the side, positioning it like a spear.
“Die quickly and feel the joy of it!” he shouted as he shoved the blade deeper. Dirt kicked up behind him as he tried to run, forcing the ax so far in that its blade vanished under the blanket of fat. The creature’s last meal spilled out in a puddle and was followed by a copious amount of blood. Fey blood was like water with only slight discoloring: a tinge of flower petal dust. The sight of it spilling out reminded Gawain of the green knight, of how shocking it was to see red blood pumped with the pressure of a man’s heart.
By the time he cam back to his senses the Cyclipse was dead, but still sitting upright thanks to its cushioned bottom and bestial posture. His pants were soaked through with its thin blood; his blistered knuckles were torn open and throbbing thanks to the final effort. The throb must have been much worse than it felt, for the rest of him was numb with cold and it was only Gringolet’s nudging that brought his wits back.
He needed warmth. The ogre’s eye was dark as a shadow upon fog, so he could safely examine its tattered loincloth and find the flint and tinder stashed there. There was no time to shift the pit out from under the snow, but he was still able to reignite it. With the return of heat came renewed vigor.
“I killed a bane on the land! By myself!” His horse stared at him as she settled down to rest. “Mostly by myself! By myself in terms of those allowed to the edge of the round table! Hahaza!” His stomach crumpled, stalling his leap of joy. “That filth had real fish, so where…” Gawain searched the entire bed of the pond and found it wasn’t completely dry. Around an earthen corner there was a small pool remaining that was filled with sluggish fish. So cramped were they that he could just pluck them out.
An hour later he had consumed three of them down to just bones, their taste improved by his victory and his frequent full-mouthed jokes where he asked the corpse sitting across from him if it was sure it didn’t want to share in the bounty. The monster also had a stack of firewood in another hidden nook, so the knight had grown the fire to thrice its original size so that no snowflake could make it to the dirt intact.
This also had the effect of melting the slab that covered the ogre’s face and chest, revealing its slack-jawed expression and the state of its magical eye. Gawain circled around the fire and examined it closely, finding that it was not an orb of flesh but of mineral. Its gray-black color and pearl smoothness, with none of the shine, made it look like an oversized glass marble covered in years of dust. He sullied its surface with his oily fingers, eventually digging them into the corners of the socket and plucking the gem loose with a horrible wet sound: Pluchfs!
“A fine trophy!” he declared, holding it skyward. “A wonderful centerpiece for the halls of…” his voice trailed off. He stared into the purplish socket of the ogre’s head. He wasn’t headed back to Camylot, but to a void like that. His victory was pointless, as it only delayed his death at the hands of something fey.
There was a flash of guilt for what he’d done to those poor fish. They were truly survivors, swimming low and quiet, eating nothing but soaked dirt and the bubbles around bits of gravel, waiting for their lives to begin anew. Along had come the ogre Gawain, caring not for their situation, nor justifying the taking of their lives with tales of a noble future. They were simply the last bite of a glutton choking to death, someone still buttering bread while their stuffed face turned purple.
“I’m worthless,” he sobbed, rubbing stinging oil and ash into his eyes and temples. “Worthless!” The word barely made it out from between his teeth, dammed inside him like snapped twigs and sludge, bubbling with self-hatred. “This is all to fail in the least shameful way.” He dropped the ogre’s glassy eye into the fire and retreated to Gringolet. She would not judge. She was the horse that returned, the one always given to the doomed. Every knight she knew was just a handful of nights: a moon that would never be seen again after it waned.
The knight nuzzled her belly as she slept, letting her fur soak up his tears. In his entire life he’d never seen King Arthyr cry, for the man had no failures to cry over. Loss existed because other people were weaker than him. What had gone wrong with his line, at least inside his nephew, to produce such a limp and soggy heart? He wondered this with every heaving breath until sleep, a necessity at that point, took him.
An inhaled muddy leaf woke him and left him sputtering. His hands slapped about in the mud as he steadied himself, for Gringolet’s warm flank was gone. Sir Gawain jumped to his feet and whirled around, but the horse was nowhere in the dry pond.
“Gringolet?” he coughed, wiping the last of the mud from his tongue. No response. “Perhaps she thought me dead already and went back.” The theory was immediately rejected when he remembered the beast had no way back to the surface. The ramping slab was melted, and ice blocked everything but the hole above. Even more disturbing, the Cyclipse’s body was gone as well. “What’s…”
The situation was perplexing indeed, for though the fire had gone out there was no snow on the pit and none fell. Overcast the outside world seemed, yet the day after a blizzard it was much warmer. It wasn’t an enriching temperature, but there was no dampness to it, rather like the air was the first touch of a waxy yellowing leaf in early Autumn. Had the ogre conjured the blizzard in the first place, and with its death ended both its illusory fish and cursed weather?
Gawain found the eye once more at the center of the dead coals, undamaged. There was the matter of his own survival to consider once more, for the Green Chapel had not sprung up like a lake weed overnight. Perhaps the eye retained some of its power and could assist him. There was no pupil to help him aim it, so his experiments were inherently foolish.
Tapping produced nothing.
Commanding it, nothing.
Squeezing it almost immediately scalded his palms and caused him to drop it. There was a pulse of its former color, of its blinding silhouette, before it faded back to dullness. With each moment the life left in it might have faded, so he had to act quickly. Using a forked branch from the firewood pile, he stood on the tips of his toes and pressed the eye against the icy ceiling. It didn’t take long for steam to hiss and crawl across the roof like voracious vines. He moved in a rectangular pattern to the edge of the bed and back.
Eventually the ice gave way, collapsing into another ramp like the one that Gringolet had so gracelessly slid in on. He had his escape, but if he was going to make it all the way to the chapel on foot he would need more provisions. When the eye cooled he stored it away in a small bag made from a scrap of cloth he found amongst the muck.
When he went to collect more fish he found the tiny reserve pool was completely empty. He didn’t know if their disappearance was the least or the worst of the three, but at the moment it didn’t matter. He felt no hunger. When he touched over his navel he realized he didn’t feel the opposite either. It was like his stomach was asleep, and his palate so thoroughly flavored like his teeth that it was as if he’d never eaten anything but fresh mountain air.
He stopped just two steps up his makeshift ramp. It couldn’t be. That kingdom could never come back to him; he was owned by another and it was far more powerful. Besides, a land couldn’t come to you. Merlyn had once mentioned that islands shift in the sea, but over the course of hundreds of years and noticeable only as outdated crumbs along map shores. No realm could sneak up on him. He climbed the rest of the way, dragging the ax along the ice with a terrible scraping.
“Gringolet!” he called again with the greatest shout he could muster. Nothing. Less than an echo. The sense that his voice hadn’t even traveled ten steps. He stopped, still at the pond’s edge, chest suddenly heaving. His shield was still tied to Gringolet’s saddle, but he simply knew that if he looked inside the portrait of Mary would be gone as if it was never there. The one god wasn’t in these lands, for if he was he would’ve helped Gawain out the first time, before he’d even been a knight.
On his knees he looked about. The blizzard had hidden many details of the land, so he couldn’t be sure if what he looked at now was an imitation of the proper place. There were rolling hills in the distance, some of them polished by low-hung misty clouds. There were trees, but they bore the dullest colors of Autumn rather than bare branches.
The pond’s skin should not have been solid given how all the snow was gone. When Gawain reached back and touched it he found the ice felt more like glass, with no cold to it at all. He raked at the earth with the ax blade and stuck his fingers deep in the ruts. Dry. No worms. No roots. No hope, but none to pin their hopes to him. Lossys.
As he wept he recalled the circumstances that first trapped him in that purgatory, some seven years ago. He was just a boy, his mother was still with him, but even with her and in the safety of the budding Camylot he was not protected from the weakness in his heart.
It happened in one of the courtyards. Back then the castle only had two. It was early spring and he was allowed to play by himself, climbing trees and tossing rocks. He didn’t think he was by himself, for animals were plentiful: rock doves, mice, and bats peeking out from the grotesques they hung under. They were his friends and subjects. Admirers and confidantes. So many things that it was no wonder the death of just one struck him so powerfully.
One of the doves was flat on its side, deflated in a way he’d never seen a bird before. A single ant sat on its open black eye, tapping with its antennae. Gawain was only vaguely aware of death; it was an intruder in Logrys. King Arthyr was unstoppable and the one god believed in life, so together they’d banished the mortal disease from their lands. He was seeing the worst thing that could ever be seen: a single dust puff of evil that had somehow blown over the walls. The authorities needed to be informed, so this terrible injustice could be rectified!
Gawain gently lifted the limp animal. He’d held a chick before, but while its fragility was notable it was not unexpected. He felt the same fragility in the dove’s dead bones, but that contrasted so starkly with the idea that there was something precious within that breast to protect that the boy was unprepared. Sadness overflowed in him immediately as copious tears and sniveling. It hurt him so badly that he thought it was death passing from the dove and into him, making his duty all the more urgent.
He kept it hugged close to his chest so none of the servants he passed took note. His breath was short in the extreme, so his sobs were quiet as long as he ran. They returned when he made it to the round table, this time set deep within the castle’s walls and out of sight of any commoners.
“Waabir… it… Pwea hel ehh!” It was as close as he could manage to a complete sentence, but surely his plea would be understood. The knights he looked up to existed to solve the problems of the people, to beat back the monsters of wandering nature. The boy placed the bird on the table so they could all see. Sir Edyrn, Sir Aglovale, Sir Galehault! The gaze of so many proud warriors should have brought his friend back to him in an instant… but they weren’t looking at the dove.
The whole table stared instead at the boy, confusing him greatly. He tried to speak again but his words were just the bubbling snot of despair, so he instead pointed at the bird and then flapped his hands to let them know that it needed to fly again.
Sir Tor burst into laughter, banging his fist on the table powerfully enough to jostle the dove’s feathers. To the boy’s horror the others joined in until all but Arthyr were drumming on the table. The dove shook so much that it nearly fell off. Gawain lunged to keep it up, but he was pushed back by a forearm as big around as his neck.
“Why are you laughing?” he managed. They didn’t answer him and they didn’t cease. Every tear out of his eye was another wave of boisterous hooting and drumming. Yes, he realized, it really was so precise, so aimed. They laughed not at the dove’s death, but at his crying. Little Gawain looked to his uncle at the head of the table and saw a smirk, but not a happy one. One of a prediction fulfilled. The king mimicked the boy’s flapping gesture, intensifying the knights’ laughter. Then he pointed at the bird and the same forearm that shoved Gawain slid it soundlessly across the table.
“What is this, that it has upset you so?” he asked, picking the creature up and shaking it; its limp neck wiggled. “I see nothing strange here.”
“I think it’s dead,” the boy sniveled. “Please uncle, save it!”
“There’s nothing left to be saved Gawain.” He shook it again, harder this time.
“I don’t know, there’s a bit of meat on that breast you could save,” Tor snickered.
“I ask again,” the king said more grimly, “why are you so upset?”
“I didn’t want it to die,” the boy said after a quiet moment. He now felt his own death was closer than ever as the gaze of the knights cooked him alive. “Why should it have to stop flying?”
“You listen well nephew,” the king instructed. “Death comes to us all; you mustn’t fear it. More than that, if you are to be a knight one day you must look forward to it. All that matters is that you live a life of chivalry as your forebears did. If we dug them out of their stone coffins do you think we would find them drowned in a tub of tears? Despairing because they can no longer despair?”
Gawain shook his head.
“We value not our bodies, not our opinions, but the virtues that burn within. Your soul is the fire of man, the spark given by your one and only lord, and it is not yours to use or keep. That is why you must never cry, especially not in our company. There is no woman’s breast to hide your pathetically swollen eyes.”
Gawain rubbed at his eyes with his sleeve, reddening them further.
“We laugh because each of your eyes looks like a chafed nipple. We laugh because your sensitivity gives you less grace than this dead bird, even if it were thoroughly plucked.” He pulled one feather from it and blew it to the middle of the table. “We laugh because this is shameful of you Gawain.” His knights nodded along.
Gawain’s hands quaked. His eyes lost focus as they explored the tender spots of his aching spirit.
“Noble death is the purpose of a man, and you cannot be one if death, or anything that leads to it, gives you pause. And if you cannot be a man you cannot be a knight in my court. Do you understand?” His nephew nodded even though their eyes didn’t meet. “Good. I don’t want to see you again until you’re done being a joke. The men can’t focus with a jester present.” He tucked the bird under the table; there was no reason to return it. “Run along now.”
Gawain didn’t remember leaving the chamber, but he must have. He didn’t recall returning to the courtyard, but he must have. That was where he next consciously found himself, but it was very different from before. The animals were gone, down to the last cricket. He realized, with alarming efficiency for such a young child, that this circumstance solved his problem. There was nothing there that could die.
Running about the castle produced many odd sights and odd lacks of sound. There was no one to tell in the kitchen, though it should’ve been bustling with cooks and servants. He tipped a pot over and was surprised to find it full of ingredients that spilled and rolled across the floor: brown-capped mushrooms clean of dirt, little yellow onions with no smell even after his fingernail tore into one, and unidentified bones.
Searching for his mother in her chambers was similarly futile. The bed was made and the sheets and pillows did not smell of her. There was a polished tray of bronze that she liked to use as a mirror after she’d cleared her breakfast from it, but when Gawain held it up he couldn’t see his reflection in it.
He hurried next to the round table, or rather the room it had occupied. Though most furniture on the grounds was intact and in its place, there was no round table. No knights. No king. No dead dove resting on the rug.
“Hello!?” Where are you all hiding!?” Gawain shouted through the halls as he wandered, only stopping when he realized the strangeness of that new place’s time. Hours must have passed, but the erosion of time added to effort had not occurred. His throat wasn’t raw from shouting, he felt no hunger, and he couldn’t bring himself to yawn even when he closed his eyes and stretched his jaw back and forth.
The sun must’ve at least shown its regular changes, so the boy returned to the courtyard and stared up, searching in vain. Clouds like furrows filled the sky; all light was gray and blue like rain over a calm sea. Frightening as this was, Gawain began to comprehend the things missing from his own body. His tears were gone. His heart still beat, but he couldn’t convince it to speed or thump even when he climbed one of the trees as quickly as he could.
At the top he found a nest, his eyes nearly popping out at the sight of it. A nest meant life, surely, especially because he saw three little brown eggs inside, almost perfectly round. Gently he picked up one of the speckled things, but was disturbed when it bent under the slightest pressure. He applied more and his thumb went straight through. Hollow. The boy pinched the other two eggs and found them nothing but shells even though there hadn’t been a crack in them anything could escape by.
“I’m in the land of empty eggs,” he mumbled. The child didn’t believe it had an actual name; why should it when it lacked so much else? There was one however, and he found it in the castle’s library when he attempted to consult the books and maps. The maps were all gone, replaced by blank vellum and parchment. The books still had words, but in countless volumes they only contained a single piece of information over and over again.
Welcome to the land of Lossys. That is where you are. Lossys is its name. This is read from the sanctity of Lossys where you are. It will never be anywhere else. Your stay will continue as long as it does, for there is no control to be had. Lossys is what there is to be had, and that is the place where you are. It is called Lossys. You may consult the index if you need any of these terms described in greater detail: Lossys, Lossys, Lossys, etc.
Gawain clapped the book shut, but there was no satisfying whumph. Each volume he cracked spouted more of the same gibberish, though it kept what he assumed to be the handwriting of the original authors. Sometimes the name of the place was even wonderfully exaggerated and illuminated, but the colors were muted by the foggy pall over everything, like the smoke in a diseased cow’s eye.
There was one brief glimmer of hope, found in a tall wardrobe in bedchambers he didn’t know. When he pulled the doors open a cloud of moths emerged and fluttered about him wildly, their powdery wings buffeting his cheeks and ears. Startled as he was, the boy laughed. Then he challenged himself to sit still as long as he could to see if they would land and crawl across his skin.
His eyes had to stay mostly closed, and his grinning lips sealed, to keep them from going where they shouldn’t. Eventually he had to peek, because none of them had tired. He caught sight of one fluttering along the floor. His grin loosened. Not along the floor. Colliding with it. Not so much a flying creature as a thin book blown along by the wind.
Gawain cupped his hands around one gently, opening a space between them just big enough for his eye. Even captured the moth did not cease flapping, but it had ceased everything else. Its legs were curled inward, stiff and tented in the bug’s unmistakable position of death. The surface of its little black eyes was dry and wrinkled. Its curled tongue was broken off. The boy jumped to his feet and swatted them all away. Only slamming the door got rid of them, but not before he’d seen the same qualities of death in all of them.
Only the wings were alive. Their attack was not the vigorous warm-blooded defense of their home he had imagined, but just shadowy shreds of life seeking the only truly alive thing around them. They were like iron filings to a lodestone. The comparison proved distressingly true when he placed his hand flat against the door and slowly dragged it down to the crack at the bottom. Only when it reached the floor did three of the flying dead moths emerge from underneath.
When he stepped on them he expected hollow shells like the eggs, but when he lifted his foot there was nothing there at all. Perhaps the land of Lossys had put them back in the wardrobe to scare the next person that didn’t belong there. That was how he thought of it, as he couldn’t help but draw parallels with the stories of knights that had accidentally wandered into enchanted lands like Anwynn: realm of the fey.
That meant if he was to escape he would have to be like one of them, for their stories never would’ve been told if they’d stayed. Lossys seemed especially characterized by such a disconnect. There wasn’t a soul for him to speak with, or one to remember him. None to judge him as he grew more pathetic, as his breath turned into either whimpers or the panting of a fever dream.
He would escape with a pledge, the boy eventually decided. Lossys had been his life for… he wasn’t sure. It couldn’t be called an amount of time because of the lack of wear, and he had very little sense of it aside from that. Days? Months? He hadn’t grown, but Lossys wouldn’t allow that. Things that grew eventually died. Both were a privilege, the king would say.
Gawain found clothes much too large for him, belonging to Sir Galahad. He borrowed them as well as a sword nearly as tall as he. The first challenge lay in deciding where to make his oath, with before the king’s throne being the most obvious. Making a mistake might’ve sent him to yet another inhospitable place, so he thought long and hard. This was to be a pledge to Arthyr, and it could not be construed as anything else. The throne wasn’t the right place, for other rulers had sat there before his uncle and the timeless land of Lossys wouldn’t differentiate.
Instead he chose the room where he had last seen the round table: the place where it had been the moment he passed out of the mortal realm. He remembered the space on the rug that would’ve been the exact center of it, the nexus of all five points of the holy pentangle. There he knelt and there he made his promise.
“I, Sir Gawain,” he squeaked, “do hereby pledge my life to the service of King Arthyr. This matters not, for my life is nothing. It is not to be held and coddled like a fledgling. It is to be spent, in the place, time, and manner of my lord’s choosing.
Of greater import is my pledge of loyalty. Never will I refuse him again. I know now the power in obedience. I can’t simply move my body in the directions he demands. I must think in line with his thoughts. I must be a part of the tradition of men. This is where I strayed and how I came to be in the land of Lossys, but I am back on the king’s trail! My next step should be in the world of the living.
Lastly I pledge myself to the way of the knight. Friendly I will be, and nothing more, when my lord demands. Free-giving I will be, and nothing more, when my lord demands. Pious I will be, and nothing more, when my lord demands. Chaste I will be, and nothing more, when my lord demands. Chivalrous I will be, and nothing more, when my lord demands. Never will I be complex like poetry or layered like diplomacy, for any of these secondary things could be selfish sadness and could lead me back here.”
The boy said it out loud once, but repeated it all four times more under his breath, eyes squeezed shut and hands wrapped around the hilt of the sword. With his throat never drying and fatigue never setting in he could’ve continued like that for eternity, but something happened. He felt something cool and solid on the back of his neck.
Just a touch on the hairs at first, but with every repeated vow it took an ant’s step closer to his skin. Whatever it was, it was the liveliest and most powerful thing in Lossys, so he kept his eyes shut, kept speaking, and let it do as it would. Soon it pushed on the back of his head, forcing him to both knees and to hold the sword at an angle. Down he went, further into subservience.
Thoughts of failure plagued him. The promise was sending him somewhere, but it didn’t immediately feel like the living world. The hilt softened in his hands, became like bread, but didn’t crumble. Before he knew it the weapon was gone and his hands held each other. The slab above pushed down harder. Perhaps he was being compressed out of existence, fulfilling his oath by dying, taking his punishment for his shameful leaky behavior. Naturally the sword had been taken back, because it never faltered in its duties. It would cut without remorse and rust in stoic silence.
He was pushed so far that he had to put his hands on the rug. It felt different, warm. There was the tiniest chafing to it, only noticeable because his skin had forgotten the thousand irritations of the real world. Yes, the skin was a living thing practically all its own, growing to close wounds faster than the deeper muscles and faster still than the stodgy bones. Its prickling was a good sign, like a short-winged bird to the man lost at sea.
Gawain opened his eyes and saw that the pall was gone. The smells and sounds of the castle were back. He couldn’t lift his head because of the pressure, so he flopped onto his side and stared up. While not as gorgeous as the decorated top, there was no mistaking what he now saw: the bottom of the round table! Its mounting pressure was simply part of his return.
He wasn’t surrounded by the legs of the knights. There wasn’t another soul in the chamber, but he could sense them just rooms away. Before he picked himself up he realized he was right where the dead dove had likely wound up. King Arthyr’s place was directly in front of him. That might’ve explained it. With the passing of the dove the gateway to Lossys had been opened, but it was the boy who fell in. It was all that awful bruised sorrow, emotion intense and desperate enough to make the forces of the world believe he was dying instead.
“Never again,” Gawain whispered, a pledge much simpler and even more powerful than the one that freed him.
Continued in Part Two