(reading time: 1 hour, 17 minutes)
Yet there he stood, promise shattered, once more in the land of Lossys. No, he reasoned, shattered wasn’t the right word. His vow had melted over the course of a year and a day. His dignity was under him as a puddle, having leaked out like his child’s tears and his coward’s piss.
“It’s… it’s alright. This is just a reprieve. The last time I wasn’t gone a whole day, yet it had to be more. My word still stands. As long as I’m here I can live… and live up to.” The gray sky didn’t argue with him. It just sat there, looking like the clouds had grown too bored to hold together. He looked down at the ax in his hands. If he meant what he said he had to keep it with him, for the game would never be finished without it.
The first trip had been a fearful exploration, so in order to give his time there meaning Gawain challenged himself to treat it like any quest he’d undertaken in the past year. For that he needed a goal and, surprisingly, Lossys provided him with one. As he walked he entered a valley full of mist, and but one structure rose above it.
A tower. A skinny thing of stone and pointed top. A single set of windows ringing it near the roof. He knew it wasn’t a watchtower or an outpost reclaimed by a woodsman, for it bore a quality that marked it as a unique structure to the land of Lossys. It descended into the mist, but never came out the other side. As far as Sir Gawain could tell from that distance the building had no base at all. To get inside was his quest. Already his weakened mind turned to fantasy, to greeting the lord of that twig-castle, someone who just so happened to know all the games of the world and how to win them.
After walking a certain distance, he truly didn’t know how to describe it as anything other than multiple steps, he estimated that he was directly under the tower. Above there was nothing but mist, not even a circular pattern to indicate the stone pressing on it. With the last shreds of strength from the true world he swung the ax around. When its speed was sufficient he threw it up into the air. The game piece sailed into the fog and vanished while the knight waited for one of two expected results: the clang of stone on metal or the ax’s hazardous return.
Neither occurred. Wherever the ax was, it wouldn’t leave. Gawain was forced to concoct a third possibility: the tower’s floor was solid on one side and not the other. That would be the kind of trick that Lossys would pull, but it only doubled his commitment to his quest, for he would need to reclaim it at any cost.
Exploring the valley beneath the fog bank yielded nothing helpful, but Lossys reminded him of its emptiness at every turn. When he tossed a flat stone at a pond it sunk without a skip or a ripple. For a while it rained, but the drops never touched the ground or wetted him. He gathered fallen logs and thick branches, assuming he could build a tower of his own that might reach the other one, but the wood could hold no weight, splintering as soon as a single other piece was placed atop it.
Dozens of trees around that place were pretending to be alive, still standing tall, so next he attempted to climb. A branch could not be treated as one, despite its identical appearance to the true thing. Any touch, any breath even, was enough to snap them. Gawain was undeterred, as the knights often had competitions to snatch flags and lady’s favors from the tops of greased poles and his light weight had allowed him to win a not insignificant number of them. It just took the strategy of wrapping his limbs around the tree’s trunk and shuffling upward, ignoring all the leaves and sticks as they fell.
The fog took him. He reached out with one hand, but there was nothing else for it to find. In his struggle he’d forgotten his orientation, so the tower could’ve been out of reach. There was no burning in his muscles, nothing could burn anywhere in Lossys, so he locked his limbs in place and pondered the situation.
“It doesn’t have to be anywhere.” Lossys made only implications, avoiding statements at all costs. When he was outside of the fog looking in the tower had a definite location, even if it was only the top half of one, but while immersed it might’ve risen from any spot where he wasn’t. The knight needed a way to catch the building by surprise. “Think. Think. I don’t have anything to use! It all just falls apart!” His breath caught. It was a strange idea, but it could work. Something falling apart across a significant distance could be a form of travel, especially for a man not concerned with his bodily integrity.
Gawain heaved, trying to pull the tree down. It only took one attempt, the base snapping and spinning. He threw up his hands, legs still locked around the log, and searched the mist as he fell for the stone of the tower or the handle of his ax. Lossys reappeared before he found anything. Wincing wouldn’t do anything to protect him from the impact, but he couldn’t stop himself.
A few moments later he lifted the log off his body and crawled out of the mildly Sir Gawain-shaped hole in the ground. It hadn’t hurt at all. He checked under his clothing for bruises or gashes, finding none. What a death to have! He pined for passage by pine. To fall with a tree was to be the head of the hammer, to be there when it struck the nail, to expend at the exact impact of progress. There was a certain rush to the ride, even in Lossys, so he tried with all the trees the land gave him.
The first fall left a score in the fog, letting him see exactly how much distance he could cover with each ride. Each subsequent one had to be more calculated though; with only nine trees within falling distance of the tower he couldn’t afford to have any of the scores overlap. This meant aiming himself carefully and never shifting position on the trunks so as to not change the angle.
His second ride, though more precise, was just as enjoyable. The third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth all passed in a blur, each probing line narrowing down the tower’s position. Only one remained, and only one untouched place in the mist big enough for the building.
“You are moving whenever I’m not looking,” he accused it, pointing at the place it had to occupy. “There’s nowhere left to run now! Your fate is as sealed as my own!” His taunts might have emboldened the tower, convinced it to jump one of his furrows, but he needed the words to convince himself that there was a chance of success. The jeering continued all the way up the tree and turned into a battle cry as he leaned into that final angle.
The world became a blue-white blur, and then a gray one. Gawain’s limbs slipped off the tree and onto something else. It felt bizarre, impossible even, but he tumbled into something that wasn’t fog while the tree ignored it and crashed to the ground far below.
Crashing was very different up there, he was forced to deduce as his eyes wanted to roll but felt too swollen. His mouth dried out as a desert wind of pain moved through him. Gasping provided no relief and he had great difficulty rolling and lifting himself, his limbs refusing to do anything more than twitch or stretch.
“Why?” he managed, sounding old and worn through. Finally some of the details sank in. He was in a room with stone block sides. Patches of pale lichen lived in the seams. There was furniture, but none of the pieces matched each other, adding to his theory that the tower was not a counterpart to any structure in the living world. Someone had taken these things from their proper places and dragged them there, though how they installed them with no base to the tower was quite the mystery.
Turning himself over felt as difficult as any attempt to hurl a wardrobe into the sky, the culprit being some issue with his back. Once on his elbows and knees Gawain reached behind and felt around his spine for the cause. He found the unmistakable handle of the green knight’s ax. With a kind of numb terror he realized he’d landed on the blade and it was now embedded between his shoulders.
That was where the pain came from: the strike of an object as real as he. Just as his body kept the majority of his vigor, the ax kept all the pain it would ever inflict safely within its polished gleam. There was no blood wetting his back or staining the floor, so he had to assume he wasn’t dying. Still the ax had to come out, even if it was just so he could keep his eye on the mischievous thing.
He found, however, that he couldn’t generate enough power to do so with his arms bent behind his back, and whatever the nature of the wound he did not wish to exacerbate it by banging the handle on the furniture to loosen it. For the moment that left him with only one decision: explore the tower. There was an avenue before him, a spiraling staircase. Gawain shuffled toward it like a hunchback, ignoring the tonk that came every time the handle hit the next step up.
The further up he went the more certain he became of a resident, a collector. Many odd relics of Lossys were present in each room, so much so that they seemed to be chosen for their qualities: the things that they absolutely would not do or embody in the living world. They were artifacts of Lossys’s history, which was also its present, arranged almost lovingly in a way that suggested the collector hoped the items could eventually merge, turning their scraps of life into something like an ill-behaved but lovable stray hound.
There was a collection of fur coats and capes on a table, but they were all swirled up together in a tight spiral. Some of them still had the heads of their original owners attached; he spotted glass eyes in at least one fox and mink. Their closeness was too perfect to have been formed by hand, leaving Sir Gawain to assume that the furs had nestled close to each other over time for warmth.
In another room he nearly walked into something barely visible that might’ve been destroyed if he touched it. Like a specter at first, Gawain realized he was looking at a coating of gray dust that still vaguely held the shape of a man. Had someone stood at a window in the living world, basking in the rays of the sun, so long that they gathered it? Or had someone trapped in Lossys tested the broken passage of its time by standing so still? Either way, when they stepped out they left behind that hovering skin. He looked closer. Could it be… a familiar face? Surely not. Every face would seem familiar now simply because he hadn’t seen one in so long. He would’ve been delighted to even look upon the Cyclipse again, to let it blind him with its magic and grotesque yellow tusks.
“It is false to think any of us have sunken to this place except me. Do not burden them with your brotherhood Gawain. None of them have walked these lands, or feared death, or spilled tears on the round table.” He closed his eyes and walked through the specter, dissipating it. After that he searched the room carefully for any others, hoping to find one with a different set of features, but that had been the only one.
The next chamber up was full of flowers, but they were not alive. The owner had recognized that the plants were little more than paper imitations of their true forms, so they had plucked the blossoms delicately and arranged them here: pinned to the wall in the hundreds, covering a table, hanging down from the ceiling on strings. They needed not water or sun, so their petals would last for eternity.
He was able to deduce something else from their arrangement: the owner was likely a man, as his artistic talent lacked the nuanced touch Gawain knew of the women in Arthyr’s court. Here the tiny yellow flowers of weeds, called feywinks in Logrys, mingled with luxurious petals of exotic stripe and thick velvety constitution.
As a boy Gawain had watched many courtly ladies assemble flower arrangements for special occasions. Gwenyvyr had even taught him which flowers could be which of the knightly virtues. The commons ones of the courtyard were for games and favors between children, never to mingle with the giant beauties as they did in that chamber.
“Imagine what Sir Lancylot would have said,” Gawain said with a snort, “if I had talked of flowers at the table.” Gawain plucked one from the wall and checked to see if it had any scent; it did not. “He would’ve accused my fingers of being petals, of lacking the strength to even lift a sword. And… he would’ve been right. I let them coddle me too much. Thinking doves couldn’t die because then they wouldn’t be fit to be released from feminine hands in the midst of ceremony. So foolish.”
He climbed out of there quickly, wondering if the tower went on forever. If it could move about in the clouds it could likely also contain far more rooms than its exterior claimed, but no sooner had he thought that than he found the end of the spiraling stairs. There were windows on all sides, but the room was hardly brighter than those below. Gawain rose out of a crude replica of the pentangle: a collection of curtain rods and river rocks upon the floor.
“Greetings Sir Gawain,” the resident of the tower welcomed him. He was sat on a cushioned bench near a window, staring out into the misty valley and the craggy tops that rose over it, wrapped up in a blanket so thick and large that the young knight only saw his fingers holding it closed over his head and neck.
“You know of me?” Gawain asked as he stepped over the lines of the pentangle, careful not to disturb its pieces. The voice matched the shape in the dust, but he still did not believe. Another false copy, if anything more than an illusion. He stepped closer, but the man turned away to hide what little of his face poked through the blanket’s ruffled edge.
“You are in my home, and you will approach when I ask it,” he snapped, but it was a wet and limp snap, like a shellfish half-drowned in air. Gawain stopped. “First you will turn around.” He did as he was told, hearing the man stand and walk over. Suddenly there was pressure on the knight’s back, and then a breathless emptiness. For a moment it felt as if his shoulders had popped off his body and taken his arms with them. He dropped to his knees, forced to stare back down the stairs into the colorful flower room: a pit of tempting weakness.
The man said nothing else, waiting for Gawain to catch his breath and turn. When he finally did, spinning and sitting on his bottom, he saw a much more confident figure, sitting with his legs open, the blanket pulled only over the top half of his face as a hood, and the green knight’s ax held upright in one hand as if it weighed nothing. He was broad of chest and strong of jaw, and sadly the only unfamiliar thing about him was his scowl.
“I had almost forgotten that was in my back,” Gawain coughed. He still felt the fissure it left behind, as if he were a simple cloth puppet and the hand guiding him had pulled free and left him flat. “Thank you.”
“You didn’t put it there to avoid it did you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t be false Sir Gawain. I will hold you to every promise you made in my presence. I was there when you swore fealty to the king, for that same promise lives in me, older and wiser than yours, wise to the tricks you might pull.”
“Falling upon it was foolish, but honest foolishness,” Gawain insisted. “I know only one trick, and I cannot control it at all.”
“You speak of your ability to find this place, which should be forever beyond the reach of men. Women can find it easily, but never enter. Animals have no capacity for it. The dead pass through to observe or to give advice.”
“And who exactly are you?” The man grabbed the blanket and pulled it off his face, revealing big, somber, gray eyes and a nose he’d gotten from his father: Sir Iwain. Before him sat Sir Uriel, the missing knight they’d searched more than a year for, whose fate had been unknown longer than the obligation to the green fellow had been felt.
“Sir Uriel! It is you!” Gawain got to his feet. He went to embrace the man, but Uriel held up his hand to stop him. He motioned for Gawain to sit, next to him, and for them both to look out the windows at the land of Lossys. “We searched for you… across every isle. There was not a trace… You were here all along? Closed your eyes and lost Logrys in a moment.”
“Nay. That is what happened to you Sir Gawain. I told you that no true man can find this place. I’m here to help you crawl back out, so that you may stand once more under the lord’s sun.”
“But that means you’re-”
“Dead, yes. I met my fate in the wilderness as I returned home.”
“To tell you would only distract you.” Sir Uriel squeezed the edge of the blanket. Whatever spirit he had left frothed inside him, but even in death he would not collapse. He would sooner transform into a marble statue than drop to his knees. “You have something else with you.”
“What? No I don’t… Oh you mean…” Gawain had forgotten the trinket. He pulled out the dark Cyclipse’s eye and held it out. “I took this from a fey ogre; it has been enchanted.” Sir Uriel took it wordlessly and tossed it, but it didn’t fall. The glassy orb sailed around the outer edge of the room, rotating once per window, and came back to be caught.
“This is a resource,” Uriel claimed, shaking it violently. That stirred something inside it, as it now looked full of gold and silver silt. “As such it is a boon to the resourceful, which you must be old friend.” He paused, as if hearing how odd it was to call such a young man an old friend. It was a dead man’s statement: a thing whispered out of a gully to those horrified to have seen the fall.
Images formed in the eye. It showed King Arthyr in the midst of battle, but not with clashing swords. He fought with his own half-sister, the sorceress Morgyn Lyfey: a tale Gawain had heard retold many times. Her beauty rivaled that of Queen Gwenyvyr, but Morgyn could not be observed like mere decoration, or commented upon lightly like the weather or the saltiness of that morning’s eggs.
She had an aura of awareness, a perhaps-magical thing that struck fear into the hearts of men. She knew all thoughts about her and all eyes upon her skin, deeming them all to be trespassers. She had killed men for taking liberties with her, and they were taken only in thought, sometimes a kingdom away. Even now the past shade of her within the eye turned away from her battle, in which tendrils of blue magic entangled Excalybur, and stared directly at Sir Gawain.
“Do you remember how this battle was won?” Sir Uriel asked.
“The king was attacked on two fronts,” Gawain recited. “While the tentacles of fey magic wrestled away his blade he was assailed by Morgyn’s mutterings: a curse to crack his foundation and convince him that he was built upon nothing.” Uriel nodded. “Arthyr counteracted it with his own prayers to the lord. He drove Lyfey out of Logrys, and Merlyn burdened her with an enchantment, a chain around her neck, so she could never return.”
“Only partly true,” the other knight corrected. “You’ve heard only the version for the commoners.” Gawain looked into the man’s eyes; he’d forgotten that Uriel was a full two years older. For knights that was like ten, as so few made it to gray beards. They had been the closest in age and rank growing up, but Uriel had the benefit of a father doting on his reputation. Of course there were things he knew, told to him by Iwain.
“What is the truth of it then?”
“This battle occurred before we adopted the one god.”
“But he created the very world… why would we-”
“Listen Gawain. What I say may not make sense to you, but you must trust it. King Arthyr won that battle because he was his own god. The final authority. Strength drawn only from within.”
“Then he prayed to-”
“Himself. The lord above, and his son Jysus, and the blessed virgin Mary, are wonderful sources of strength, but they cannot be considered in the most desperate moments of battle. A man must go deeper, acknowledge that truth is found in himself… and power.”
“Are you saying that our god is false!?”
“Nay, only that the way of the round table is more true. Arthyr won out that day because he was pious, but pious in his practice of chivalrous strength instead of religious memorization.”
“Piety is of course one of our virtues,” Gawain said softly.
“Its true nature in that list is revealed to you now. To be pious is to live your commitment to the other virtues, not to god. I say this so that you will be pious in the keeping of your vow. That you will leave this place immediately and go to your fated encounter with this ax.”
“Can I admit to you… my fear?” Gawain asked, snot swelling in one nostril. His lip quivered, so he covered it with a hand, so tightly that the skin of his cheeks twisted. “I would never, not to another living man, but you have passed.” A deep breath forced its way inside him. “Surely I can share it with you?”
“You already have,” the specter answered, voice grave and unaccommodating. He pushed the ax into Gawain’s hands and tucked the ogre’s eye back into his clothes. “Go now. You have promised Arthyr to take the green knight’s blow and return to him.”
“But brother, I do not know how! I am willing I swear it!”
“You know the way back!” Uriel snapped, standing, forcing Gawain out of his kneel. “You’ve known from the first step you took in Lossys. A death provided your passage, and you took what should’ve belonged to that spirit. The last time it was a dove, and you found your return where its body rested.”
“Go back to where you claimed victory over it. You don’t need to vow to die, but you must vow to take the green knight’s swing!”
“They are one and the same!”
“Perhaps they are, but a true knight would find a way to split them. I’ve already advised you to be resourceful. You have that magical eye, a keen horse, and the blood of the king in your veins!” He stepped forward into the pentangle, driving Gawain to its center.
“Is that not the coward’s way? Finding a way to live on? It was clear what I promised, yet I would seek days beyond the year and a day!”
“Stick only to the word you gave. Do whatever you have to give Arthyr what he wants, and he wants you back. Anything you do that might give you pause will fade away upon your triumphant return, washed down with the ale. The other knights will tell your story, they will leave out your reservations, and all will be smoothed to the contour of the round table. You will inspire those younger than yourself, and to spill your insides to them would turn them from our path! They must be in battle when they see it for the first time, not a sitting room next to a teary-eyed man broken beyond his years!”
Sir Uriel could touch the ax and the eye, but Gawain had assumed the ghost could not make contact with him. He was proven wrong when the guiding soul thrust his palm into his chest, sending him falling down the center of the pentangle. The spiral stairs he’d climbed were gone, but the floor below was still there, and though it was covered in flowers they were but one layer thick.
The impact stunned him. Blooms fell from the ceiling, some drifting so close to his eyes that they blocked sight of Sir Uriel. With the spinning passage of a single yellow petal, the ghost was gone. The tower didn’t last much longer. All the flowers broke apart and swirled about him, a sensation that promised it would lift him, but it just dropped him out of the sky, out the bottom of the dissipating mist.
When he stood and climbed over one of the logs he’d ridden he saw that the sky was clear. With their rendezvous complete there was no reason for the tower to exist. That meant Sir Uriel had moved on, into the welcoming arms of the lord and the veneration of the king. Gawain was left wondering what was more powerful, and which more comforting.
The somber march back to the pond was marked by a painful revelation. Uriel had made it very clear that no other man knew his fate. If Sir Iwain was to ever know of his son’s end, Gawain would have to return alive enough to deliver the news. Entrusting it to any person at the Green Chapel would acknowledge his expectation of failure. He reached the edge and looked down the ramp of ice.
“You gave this to me as material for this vow,” he realized aloud. “I have something more to promise the world, something found in Lossys, an excuse for my descent. Thank you Sir Uriel. I will let you down… but I will never admit it. Only the promise will be heard… and the pop of the ax through bone.” The depression where the ogre sat was still there in the mud: two fleshy imprints filled with the melt from the slab that struck its head. Gawain hated to immerse any part of himself in it, but he had to give his word right where the creature died. The water soaked into his clothes as he took a knee and drove the ax down, holding it as he had the sword before.
“I, Sir Gawain of the round table,” he started, wincing at the whimper in his voice, for it sounded weaker than the one he’d used as a child, “hereby swear to deliver a whole man unto the Green Chapel: living body, willing spirit, and burning heart.” He opened one eye; no snow fell from the hole above. It was not enough. Sir Uriel was right to burden him; the extra pressure was vital to his escape.
“I, Sir Gawain, do also swear that the noble Sir Iwain will know the truth of his son’s courageous passing. None other than I will tell him, but only after I have rested and regained my strength at the Green Chapel. My eyes… feel heavy… but a good rap on the neck from a blade should rouse them. It will be but a pinch to a knight of King Arthyr.” He didn’t dare open his eye again. The world would let him know if he returned with a biting wind and specks of snow upon his cheeks, so he waited, filling each moment with the oaths repeated.
To the Green Chapel and then to a proud father.
To the knight’s swing and then to a friend’s memorial.
To a friendly game and then tales of heroism.
Something cold and wet touched his eyelid. The single attacker became an army of droplets upon his cheeks; their cavalry raced through his hair to chill his scalp. They rode on a biting wind that invaded his throat and gnawed on his chest. Gawain opened his eyes as all the small sensations of the living world returned. There was Gringolet, standing and staring at him as if to ask why he was not yet mounted. His shield was safely tied to her flank.
The Cyclipse’s body was gone, but its eye was still a solid stone in his pocket. The blizzard still raged above, but its intensity could double and it wouldn’t have stopped him from leaving. What stood a much better chance of that was the injury that pulled him down the moment he tried to take a step toward his horse.
Blood had soaked through the back of his shirt and across one side. His breaths were short, for each one felt like it popped a stitch of a loose seam in his back. It was where he had fallen upon the ax in Lossys, and the weapon was real enough to not allow him to forget it. Without attempting to stand again he already knew the severity of the injury, for it was exactly what he deserved. It was enough to stop a weak man, a man ready to welcome the excuse as his savior and die sucking his thumb like a babe.
“Not me,” he growled, crawling to his horse. “You can have me wicked ax, but not here and not now. First we must ride; your master misses you dearly. He hasn’t had any fun without you.” It took hours, but Sir Gawain managed to escape the pond by repeating the tactic that allowed him to do so in Lossys. It took far longer thanks to having to do it all from horseback without bending his spine much in either direction. His fingers went numb quickly, but at least the cold softened the immense pain for him.
Barely awake, even in the whipping wind and snow, Sir Gawain urged his steed on. He didn’t have a heading for her, but Gringolet recalled their direction from before. A few times he nearly fell from her back as he slept, but she twitched her shoulders to adjust his weight, willing to drag him with her teeth should he actually fall.
Sir Gawain the seasonal, the free-giving, the pious continued on, ready for the greenest of pastures.
At some point the blizzard ceased. Had he been awake he still would not have understood it, for it was not the regular cessation and resurgence of weather. The snow stopped falling in the middle of its descent, the flakes vanishing in the air, and only when blown past an invisible but consistent barrier.
Gringolet noticed and attempted to rouse her rider with a whinny, but he did not yet respond. She knew she wasn’t carrying a corpse because she’d carried them before; despite the absence of a soul they always felt heavier. Gawain was most certainly alive because he had that lightness to him: the heaviest thing being the thump of his heart down on the saddle.
The barrier destroyed the wind as well. It was good that he was not awake, because in its transitory state the land resembled Lossys: dry and bleak. Panic might have taken him, and in his state that would’ve been enough to take him entirely. Gringolet had no such qualms about walking upon soils infused with magic, so she did the wisest thing and walked on with no respect given to lines drawn upon the ground.
Eventually the changes became even more stunning. The land to the east was not just a winter hide without the white fur, but a place like Camylot in regards to its season. Even with Yule close at hand the trees were lush and green, filled with tittering birds and far too many bugs for them to ever eat. Indeed, the bugs were numerous beyond belief, and their behavior overly friendly without seeming parasitic.
Gringolet was accustomed to the biting flies of the swamps and the rainy season; she flicked her ears instinctively to keep them away. It was unnecessary, for though many buzzed and whizzed by her ears none of them had any interest. They were dragonflies and damsels, hawkmoths and black bumblebees: all the loud fliers that never seemed to slow or land. In the trees they were stick bugs, amber ants, and green crickets with stout bodies and long faces. They knew they so overwhelmed the appetite of the birds that they crawled about their feather-strewn homes, nesting in their nests, sitting atop eggs even as hungry chicks stirred inside.
In any normal forest they would’ve swarmed to the dry blood on Gawain’s back, but there were no flies and no determined ticks that had scaled Gringolet’s haunches. Instead butterflies rested there with iridescent wings of unnatural colors. Their crawling was an investigation, their probing in his ears with their curled tongues just confirmations that he was nothing more than a bloody boy drying out away from the snow.
The one item they avoided was the ax; it was the true drinker of blood. No good sap would be inside and if it sprouted any leaves they would taste too much of purpose. A real plant simply basked in the sun and unwittingly provided. Making one into a weapon was most peculiar, as it would weave life into its delivery of death, confusing everyone from the bugs on up to the fey.
Other animals were eager to greet the new visitors; they came bounding out of the underbrush for a few friendly sniffs and stares. Three fawns, oddly separate from their mother, sprang out suddenly, took turns stepping under Gringolet’s belly, touched their noses to Gawain’s dangling fingers, and left again. By the time the horse bothered to look their way they were already gone, though it did cause her to see the group of crimson-furred weasels streaming around her hooves. They must have lived there, wherever there was, for their entire lives given that none had their white winter coats or even a pale spot upon nose or paw.
The sun disappeared under the canopy. Each place where it broke through had a single plant growing in its ray as if it was all by design, the light only provided when a seed needed it. Many of the trees had vines wrapped around their trunks a dozen times, but without the aura of strangulation that usually characterized such things. It was as if the trees were all dressed up in the latest fashion, and each vine had its own subtly distinct leaf shape so that none of them could be accused of imitating another’s style.
Already doing far more than her fair share, Gringolet’s unflagging pursuit of their direction was still not enough to keep the young knight alive. His body was weak from blood loss, and it had nothing to use in healing. The forest proved as rewarding as the blizzard was punishing, for the three fawns took notice and eventually returned with clusters of glossy purple berries hanging from their lips.
They took turns walking alongside the horse, pushing the food into his open mouth and holding it there until it instinctively closed. He chewed, still firmly held in sleep like a beetle caught in dried wax. He ate the stems and the little deer hairs that came with, and were he awake he might have ravenously jumped on the poor animals and bitten out their throats just for a taste of venison, but when he finally came around there was nothing left of them but a furry taste in his mouth.
His eyes opened because the rhythm of their journey had ceased. Gringolet was stopped, staring ahead in a focused way that was very unsettling to see on a horse; it seemed better suited to a philosopher who had just realized the futility of philosophy.
“Gringolet,” he whispered, voice hoarse and head pounding. Lifting himself was out of the question, so his steed turned and walked along slowly, showing him that they’d arrived. The building before them had to be the Green Chapel, for its name could be guessed on sight even if it had never been heard. At the level of Gawain’s eyes there was a stone wall that went on as far as he could see in either direction, though that wasn’t far thanks to the trees, some of which curled over the wall and then grew down, creating natural wooden columns that terminated in upside down canopies like bushes.
Between them the gray stone blocks were massive, something attested to most notably by the fissures and cracks, many of which were large enough to house tiny shaded gardens of moss, flowers, and purple-silver wood lice. Gawain reached out with one hand and let his fingers glide across the rock until a tree trunk interrupted.
The only way to see anything above that was to tilt the saddle and risk falling, but Gawain did so anyway. There were towers, no doubt, but it was impossible to tell how high they went, blocked as they were by leaves. What was visible were the many panels of stained glass in every color reflected in spring rains. They depicted figures on horse, boar, bear, and hartback riding through lush greenery with arrows flying playfully like finches. It was a hunt, but nothing at all seemed to die, the arrows finding only ground and then branching out as the ax had over a year and a day.
One of the figures had green skin. Gawain looked closer, wrapping both arms around a tree to convince Gringolet to stop. The man wasn’t just glass. Veins of vine intruded in the pane, growing within it as if the glass was still fluid. They were spread throughout the green man’s body, vaguely resembling the position of a real man’s arteries, before leaving out his side and growing out of the glass and across the stone.
“This can only be the Green Chapel!” he declared. “We must get in Gringolet. We must… even if the ax must go through this window.” He reached for the weapon, but his mount had a better idea. She saw something just past the next two trees, something like a door. It took only a few moments to reach it, but more than that to understand what it was. Gawain loosened his grip on the ax, suspecting it could do nothing against the portal. Its positioning suggested it was a drawbridge, as the ground before it was a deep ragged pit with no visible bottom. Looking into it revealed only a few gnarled hanging roots in its walls.
There were no chains that he could see, and no knocker either. The only thing that really suggested it was a door was its interruption of the stone walls, including a few blocks cut around it near the top. It was in the shape of a leaf, and made of some material that could not be leaf or wood: darkest green and leathery enough to give off a strong smell across the pit. It had a central vein growing many more leaves, but these were at least of a comprehensible size.
“I have arrived!” the knight tried to shout, but his voice was weaker than the thrum of the nearest damselfly. Gringolet walked back and forth around the edge of the pit, examining it, but even the resourceful horse couldn’t find a way to proceed. Gawain leaned over again, but the saddle tilted too far. He very nearly fell into the pit, but Gringolet pulled back quickly enough for him to hit the ground instead.
The scent of grass invaded his nose and mouth, but it too had a supple leathery quality, like each blade had been crafted and stood there, posed at their own personal angles by a diligent fingertip, for hundreds of years. They smelled like not one of them had ever yellowed. This struck the knight as grossly unfair: a taunt because of his own approaching death. It took all his strength to prop himself up on his elbows, and the act made his back wound pucker and throb.
“Hear me!” he shouted, finally loud enough to hear through the leaf-door, as long as there wasn’t more stone behind it. It still wasn’t enough to deter any of the bugs around his head or resting on his back, but they at least did him the courtesy of not crawling across his cheeks. “I am Sir Gawain and I am your honored guest! There’s a celebration inside in my honor, and that honor hasn’t even crossed the threshold! How could you be so rude to me? Open I say! Open and welcome me… unless you’re afraid that your bodies can’t withstand the revelry I bring! There is so much fun to be had, and not a drop of pain!”
It would have to do, for he didn’t have a single word left in his chest. Perhaps there was too much intent in his final speech, for his vision blurred immediately after he closed his mouth as if his consciousness had left to accompany his challenges. Was it a drooping eyelash… or was the leaf-door moving? The blurring worsened, but the colors were changing, starting from the top.
Though he could see nothing beyond the color of stone and the color of leaf bleeding into each other, he could hear it now. The giant leaf was being let down, perhaps on vine-chains or by the weight of a gigantic dew drop the way nature always bent them. Another wave of the smell arrived with the tiniest breeze: certainly a sigh of the chapel’s air.
He crawled forward, ecstatic when his fingers found the thick leaf instead of the pit’s dank air. It bent under his entire weight, but not so much to suggest it would rip or collapse. Something else much heavier was there as well, he felt it, moving past him and inside. It had to be Gringolet, and she would never leave him without cause.
A hand found his shoulder. A second one, even softer than the first. A woman, he guessed. She said something, but even his hearing blurred. Sir Gawain faded into sleep once more, wondering if every interval between dreams was going to feel like an entirely new world.
“Isn’t that boy awake yet?”
“No. I even washed him and he didn’t stir.”
“Your hands are too soft. Let me give him a good scrub with these pumice fingers and see how long it takes him to howl.”
“You shouldn’t sully your hands my lady. We have no idea where he’s been.”
“Oh I know exactly where he’s been and whose hand dropped him into the dirt, soiling him like that. It’s a disgrace. Bashing bruises until they get hard and never turn back.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at the emblem on his shield there.”
“Oh! The king of Logrys. Arthyr Pendragynn… but he looks too young to be a knight. He must be the same age as I.”
“They have to be young enough to bruise, to see that purple skin all over their lord and think it’s the normal color. It kills them inside, but that purple protects against the green. You can’t get them to care for it at all.”
“Should I try to wake him? Master Bertylak told me he wants him at dinner.”
“Wait until he barely has time to get ready. You don’t want him walking through these halls slowly, not until he has time to adjust anyway.”
“Yes my lady.”
Gawain’s first response was to flinch, given the strange patterns across his arms, but vines weren’t growing on them as it appeared. The stained glass window over his bed simply projected its patterns onto him and the heavy blanket. Sitting up stung, but when he reached over his shoulder he felt soft bandages wrapped across his wound and under his arms. His shirt was folded on a table, feeling like it was on another island thanks to the other person in the room. She was young. Green eyes, but not the devilish kind that might make her the fey daughter of that accursed knight. By her dress she was a handmaiden, or perhaps a nurse. Back in Camylot girls of her rank wore their hair in tight braids under caps and veils, but hers hung in front of her shoulders in luxurious, auburn, tumbling tangles.
“W-where am I?” he asked.
“The only place you need to be,” she answered cryptically, “in bed. You have quite the cut back there behind you, but not to worry. Bertylak Castle has medicine in all its cracks, flowering under every table.” Gawain looked to both sides of the bed. Though the room was fairly ordinary, all the right furniture in the right places, each wooden piece was not limited to what he could see. The posts of the bed were alive and leafy, growing between the stones of the floor and spreading roots into other chambers. Its canopy was quite literal: a few lizards with wide amber eyes rocked in its branches.
“Bertylak Castle?” he sputtered. “No, no it cannot be. This is the Green Chapel. It must be! How could this be anything else!?” He turned to look out the window, but the light was far too bright. With the shade gone it meant he was in one of the towers, and they did indeed rise above the forest.
“We do have a chapel,” the girl said to calm him, “and we’ve always had an awful lot of green, but I’ve always known this place by the names of Bertylak and Hautdesert. You were shouting outside about being welcome, and I admit I’m not told everything, but I didn’t know you were coming.”
“I was sent this way… nothing could cross my path but the chapel… it was to be my fate…”
“Whatever welcome you were ready for you will get,” she assured him with a smile. “There is no friendlier place in the world. Invasion of this castle has been tried, a hundred times, but when a soldier crosses the bridge he becomes a guest, and all he can do is enjoy our wonders.” She stood from the edge of the bed, grabbed a thin green shirt unfamiliar to him, with gold trim and wide sleeves, and presented it.
“I would like my clothes back, please.”
“Your clothes that are all cut up and covered in blood? You won’t present yourself to our lord that way. You’ll wear this, and you’ll wear it swiftly. You’re expected at our banquet table immediately. Everyone’s waiting on you.”
“Wait, who is everyone? And your lord? And who are you?” He pulled on the shirt.
“You don’t need my name knight of Arthyr, and I don’t need yours. You are a guest. Normally I wouldn’t say a word to you, but I had to thanks to your miserable entrance.”
“You do seem out of practice,” he snapped. “This is not the way you speak to a guest if you are a humble servant.” She opened the door and clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. A loamy smell of moss and honeysuckle flooded in.
“It would benefit you to know that there isn’t a soul here who is humble, or a servant,” she informed. “I’m a guest trying and failing to overstay my welcome… The banquet hall is to your left. Follow the uproar.” With that she left, leaving the door hanging open. With his bottom still naked Gawain rushed to find the other half of the outfit she’d left.
Standing and walking were both difficult, but with each step the pain faded, so much so that it stalled him. What medicine could be so effective? Or was his body simply using up its font of healing, knowing full well that the reserves wouldn’t be needed for the decades he would never have?
Lastly he looked at the ax and his shield, propped up together against a wall. He should bring them, they were the articles of the execution, but only if this was the Green Chapel. Listening closely, he didn’t hear the angry wail of Sir Uriel, nor the taunting of Lancylot. Arthyr’s orders would be obeyed, but only when he had confirmed the time and place. How long Gringolet had carried him was still a mystery, but it couldn’t have been more than a couple days.
Gently he shut the door to his room and turned left. It turned out the bed was the least of the castle’s marvels. Every wall was covered in moss, huge clumps of it rounding all the edges and corners. Things moved underneath it like cats crawling under carpets, or perhaps it was just the moss deciding where exactly to grow next.
Chandeliers hung, but there was no telling if they were a perversion of nature or the finest craftsmanship he’d ever seen. Bands of gold holding together red petals of cinnabar, or possibly just petals. There were no candles in place, but he noted a swarm of fireflies resting in the center of each giant bloom, antennae swishing lazily.
A swell of laughter pulled him away from these observations. Uproarious indeed, but mostly of one voice. A man’s, but not that of the green knight, he was sure. That fellow had laughed the way god must have when he saw man’s first embarrassing mistake, when Adym ran around frantically looking to cover his nakedness.
The way to the banquet hall was doorless, but a silk curtain separated Gawain from it. Through its impeccably thin weave he caught a glance. Cold rage lurched and bubbled in his stomach, tightening his throat. How dare this lord. The round table was undeniably a symbol of Arthyr; to copy it was a terrible insult. He pushed his way through the curtain, ready to shout that, whoever they were, they had no idea what any of it meant. The circle was just to contain the five points, to give a boundary to the wholeness of chivalry, to-
Not quite a round table after all. Much bigger around than Arthyr’s, but with no middle at all. It was a ring table with seats all along the outside, growing into its wood and into the floor much like the bed had. All but one chair was full, including the throne at the ring’s center. He couldn’t see who occupied it at first, as it was turned the other way, but whoever it was they owned that uproarious laugh, which faded when he entered the room.
“What’s that?” the voice said. “He is finally here!? Behind me!” There was the sound of bare feet on the table, and then a strange one he couldn’t place until he saw the action it was attached to. The throne spun to face him, pushed by the man who had been sitting in it moments before. The table was large enough that he could walk on it without upsetting all his guest’s plates and glasses, though it still seemed unsanitary to do so.
The throne had a thick base and towered over everyone else, so one man should not have been able to drag it on his own, not even enough to turn. The object had been designed for such an act though, and the mechanism underneath must have involved water given the sound of churning from below. When it was turned all the way around he hopped back into his seat to greet Sir Gawain.
“Arahaha! Good evening knight of King Arthyr. I told the others that we could not start eating until you joined us. Hurry up and sit down; I think they’re about to eat each other.” Gawain stood there dumbly. It was all too much to take in. The hall was fabulously decorated with things that shouldn’t have been as alive as they were. Banners hung in seemingly random places, their patterns peculiar enough to make him believe they were weaved by spiders. The other guests were all foreigners to him, some with colors to their skin that he’d never seen. Some of them were as confounded as he, others lost in revelry, and still others stewed in obvious silent anger.
Atop it all lounged this man, wearing a thin robe of crimson and deep purple, bare chest on display all the way down to the pucker of his navel. He was much older than Gawain, but with the life of a youth in his limbs and face. His oiled beard pulled back to reveal some of the finest teeth he’d ever seen. Altogether the man looked soft, like a woman’s scarf so delicate that its first stain would mean tossing it in the refuse because any effort to clean it would cause it to disintegrate.
“You should sit,” a woman grumbled at Gawain from her own seat. “Some of us are truly starving.” He would never call her a liar; her eyes were gray and sunken. Her collarbone jutted like a rude gesture. Finally the young knight moved, but her request was only half of it, as he thought he felt the grass under his feet shift. There wasn’t even time to wonder when the stone floor had become entirely green.
Only when he sank into his chair, unsettled by the giving creak of the wood, as if it was ready for him, did he look at the food on the table. The dishware was humble by castle standards, mostly hammered copper, but the bounty in and on it was unrivaled: huge shanks of lamb rubbed with so many herbs that the skin was invisible under a green crust, golden creamy potatoes steaming as their peaks rose out of lakes of swirling butter, stewed fiddleheads with rock salt snow, and a few filleted fish so long that their platters couldn’t quite conform to the curvature of the ring table.
When the smells finally wafted up to him they erased all the others and he forgot there was an indoor forest behind him. There was nothing in the world but the proper and good feast before him, and it would have not only his full attention but his allegiance if it had been able to ask for it. The lord of the castle saw this in his eyes as a desperate look, the kind only a hungry young man can have, and mercifully gave him permission by smiling and tilting a glass of dark wine into his mouth.
Most everyone ate in silence, and extremely quickly, doing each other the courtesy of not mentioning manners. They reached across each other for the thin yellow gravy, bit into bread without cutting, and reacted to bouts of choking by shoving even more in their mouths to suppress the noisy cough.
Gawain barely had any thoughts at all. Everything was a sensation either on his hands or in his throat. There was a goblet near his plate, and he couldn’t remember if it had been there when he sat down. Without a second thought he snatched it and gulped down its contents. So many flavors mingled in the lagoon of his mouth that he couldn’t tell if it was wine, water, or mead, just that it was incredibly refreshing and cleared the way for more.
More should take the form of a giant roasted mushroom cap, he decided. There was one on a bed of greens just to his left, still steaming even though there were no servers in the hall to freshly deliver it. He wrapped his fingers around its fleshy lip, marveling at its size, matching the platter it was one. It would be his with one tug, except there was an equally assuming tug from the other side.
Frustrated, Gawain looked over to see a man with skin like smoky caramel, prompting the knight to remember that other people existed. The man’s expression was sour, but the sourness was concentrated in his intense eyes, for his mouth and tongue were too coated in joy to reflect dissatisfaction. The man grabbed a knife. Gawain tensed, but he just dragged the blade down the middle of the mushroom, allowing each of them to pull half to their plate.
“You are from one of the sand sultanates,” Gawain guessed as he bit into his half. The taste was decadent, like the mushroom had somehow drawn gold out of whatever decaying body had spawned it, but he couldn’t let the pleasure overcome his surly demeanor. Already he thought himself under attack, the man from sand splitting the food in half so he could be first to claim the mantle of fairness. The young knight would counterattack with politeness, with greetings and freely-given wisdom that could stun.
“You do not get to know where I am from,” the older man replied, cutting into the cap with his silverware to contrast Gawain’s greasy-fingered grabbing. The knight quickly wiped his hands on a silk napkin that had appeared in his lap. A look at the other man’s clothing didn’t reveal anything, as he’d been given new attire the same as he. Both forced into comfortable breathable green. “I am not here to visit your king.”
“A visit would hardly be necessary, as Arthyr will introduce himself soon,” Gawain threatened quietly. He would not violate the etiquette of the lord’s table, but it was his duty to automatically put himself at odds with the enemies of Logrys, several of whom were present. The sand sultanates were vicious heathens, he’d been told. Sir Lucan the good called them story-stealers; they laid claim to many of the tales of the one god like that of Moses. Some even had the nerve to say those stories were born in their lands and useful only to their people.
“He will be rebuffed.” He took a bite, taking care to fully chew and swallow it before speaking again. “Easily.”
“What is your name, good sir?” Gawain demanded. “That way I can tell the king to greet you personally.”
“You will not have my name either.”
“Then you force me to assign you one by all I know of you. I will call you Sand.” Gawain felt a twinge in his heart that must’ve been quite powerful to overcome the cascade of smothering warmth from the feast. He’d heard the other knights banter and prod almost identically, but perhaps his young constitution wasn’t ready for it.
“Very well, then I will judge you by the lands you hail from. To me you will be Bog.”
“That’s Sir Bog,” Gawain countered, regretting it a moment later. It still sounded undignified.
“My apologies Sir Bog,” Sand chuckled, returning to his meal as if he’d already forgotten Gawain’s existence. The argument might have continued, even if on a single side, if the smell of the mushroom had not pulled him back. There was still some left, so much left, enough to plow and grow a new crop on. He tucked back into it, wondering if mushroom had become his favorite food, when he spotted a pair of bare feet on the table before him. It was the lord of the castle and not another strange delicacy, though his toes were clean and smooth as soft-boiled quail eggs.
“Are we enjoying ourselves?” the man asked with an absurdly self-satisfied grin, chin resting on his knuckles, elbow resting on his knee. Gawain struggled to swallow, the pain of it reminding him that this couldn’t last forever.
“I’m sorry. We haven’t been introduced. I meant to thank you for saving my life. I was wounded you see… out in the,” he pointed behind him but couldn’t decide on a place, “wilds. It was an ogre. I’m being saved yet now, as this Yule feast nourishes me.”
“Go on then.”
“Introduce yourself. You are a knight of King Arthyr, which makes you welcome at my table, which makes me look so forward to your company that all else here will be made to wait for you. They could’ve died and I still would’ve waited.” The lord spotted a crusty sliver of bread jutting out of a thick stew; he snatched it between his toes and managed to bring it all the way to his bent mouth without moving either hand.
“I am called Sir Gawain the seasonal. Free-giving and free. I’m here to-”
“You’re here to celebrate! That’s what we’re all here for, as I won’t allow anything else during Yule. I’m sure you’ve noticed our extraordinary lands, not a spot of snow anywhere on them. Our animals don’t even have memories of it.”
“Those animals belonging to…”
“Bertylak de Hautdesert!”
“And his wife!” a woman called out as she entered the chamber. Bertylak shuffled his feet, spinning his throne, to face her. Gawain had the much simpler task of turning his head, but wound up far more winded than the other man. The Lady Hautdesert was an extraordinary beauty, the likes of which Gawain had seen only one other time in Queen Gwenyvyr. Her golden hair, kissed with red, flowed over her shoulders like honey, nay, like the lifeblood of one of the oldest trees in the world.
The wild play of lion cubs was alive in her eyes, a glance more than a suggestion, an outright statement, that its target would contribute to her enjoyment of life whether they sought to impede or to simply escape from it. Her smile was absolute confidence, tilted just enough that she would never be mistaken for a person with the patience to sit for a portrait. Her dress matched the garish colors of her husband’s robe, but she wore them much more elegantly, her bare feet poking out from under.
“Yes of course!” Bertylak boomed. “Frankly the animals like her better, a sentiment that will only grow when I pick up my bow in the coming days, all to feed you lot of course. Come my ladies, join us as we get to know each other.”
“There’s plenty of time for that,” the lady said with a wave of her hand. “There is lord’s business to attend to, and I know I can’t count on you.” She spoke in a jovial tease, but Gawain couldn’t help but note that Bertylak had not included his title in his introduction. Was he truly the lord of the castle? If so, then this place was somehow not the Green Chapel. He had to know if this lord’s work belonged to Bertylak or not, and he had to know before the meal was ended. He still needed time to ride to his grave or it would be filled in without him.
“Are you both needed?” Bertylak pouted, prompting Gawain to look again. So distracted was he by the lady’s glow that he hadn’t noticed her companion even though they held hands. It was likely because this second woman was opposite in every way: short, elderly, mostly hidden under a black shawl, and with eyes so empty they were like glass bowls with still puddles of oil on the bottom.
A respected elder, the young knight guessed, possibly the Lady Hautdesert’s mother or aunt. Upon her fingers, each and every one, sat rings of gold and silver with massive sparkling jewels. Their twinkling was mesmerizing and inexplicable given the low level of light within the hall. Last to notice he was, as several of the other guests eyed the jewels greedily as if they’d gone back to starving and saw them as nothing more than colored sugar crystals. Both the woman with the jutting collarbone and Sand seemed to take special interest.
“Who is she?” Gawain tried to ask, but when he turned back to the table he saw that Bertylak had already spun away. He was deep in conversation with someone on the other side of the ring table. That left him with no one to ask but his neighbor Sand.
“The old woman?” the foreigner clarified as he spread so much butter on something that its identity was completely obscured. “A hideous crone to be sure.”
“Her face is… odd,” Gawain whispered as the two women walked through and disappeared behind the silk curtain. “It’s like she’s new to this place and entirely bored with it. I’ve had many adventures, but I cannot say I’m bored of a place such as this.”
“She has lost her soul to magic,” Sand guessed.
“What do you mean? Where has it gone?”
“Sorcery is the same as any other temptation.” The man opened his mouth, examined the butter-drenched item, and set it back down with a sigh. “They seek to lure you away from pure spiritual pursuits. They promise you things that they can deliver unto you, but only in fleeting moments. Everything else in your life turns to regret. A fey man could’ve wooed her and run off with her, but only with her soul, leaving that venerable shell behind to guard her jewelry.”
“Did you see the way those rings shined? They must be enchanted,” Sir Gawain agreed.
“Not all of them,” Sand said slowly, puzzling out the truth of it as he spoke. “She wouldn’t have any fingers left if they were.” He referred to the quality Merlyn had taught Gawain about: the bickering of enchantments too close to each other. “But something here is responsible for all this greenery. This place looks like the periphery.”
“A translation,” Sand said, blinking as if he suddenly remembered he was talking to someone. “The Celtic tongue curdles in my mouth, but I think that’s how it would translate. You people give it a proper name, which you should never do: Anwynn.”
“The realm of the fey,” Gawain muttered. He looked around once more. Never had he heard of an enchantment powerful enough to take people there on its own. For a creature without magic in its blood to go there, without being transformed in some way, was supposed to be one of the most taxing feats of sorcery. Merlyn claimed to visit that place only once, and when he came back he was permanently pale as if he’d paid a toll in blood that his veins could not replenish. “Why does your grit-coated tongue call it the Periphery?”
“Because you should never look at it directly. Fairies and elven and wights are all just waiting for you to look at them. Once you acknowledge them they can begin their work on you, chipping away until you are not a man, but a naked giggling sprite who has forgotten who he was.”
“I do see the wisdom in that,” Gawain admitted. “I fought an ogre who was honest about this; he wouldn’t even allow me to look directly upon him. Sight of his face burned the eye.”
“So you see. A word of advice, though your ears may be too stopped up with swamp water to hear it: make your goal in this place singular. Everything that is not pursuit of it will take you further away.” With that Sand tried to stand and leave, with plenty still on his plate. Bertylak whirled around so quickly that water splashed up from the seam between the throne and the table.
“You wouldn’t be leaving yet, would you?” he asked Sand, sounding disheartened. An odd tone to strike given the spring in his movement. “There is still dessert. I didn’t catch any of the sweets we’ll be having, but they are superb. Don’t disappoint those eager for your company.” Sand sat back down slowly without a word, though he did push the plate away. Bertylak must not have wanted the food to go to waste; he snatched the plate, vaulted over the table, and sat in the empty chair on the other side of Sir Gawain. From there he tucked into it, starting with the butter-coated lump.
“May I ask where the enchantment is?” Gawain queried. He would’ve waited until the man was finished eating, but he didn’t show any sign of slowing down. The most peaceful moment was when he took large swigs from his goblet. This was the knight’s best chance to figure out who exactly he was dealing with; he couldn’t afford to let the man spin away and instead be intimately involved with a different adventurer’s journey.
“You mean the one that keeps this land free of winter?” Bertylak asked, wiping glistening purple from his lips with a sleeve.
“Yes. It’s not all that strange to me really, as we have the same magic in Camylot; ours was tailored to us by the incomparable Merlyn.”
“I mean no offense Sir Gawain, but if the magic exists twice over he’s not exactly incomparable is he? You could compare him to our… sorcerer.” He reached over and ripped part of the mushroom cap on Gawain’s plate, helping himself to a long swollen curl of its edge.
“So you do have a sorcerer in your employ?”
“No, no, no,” Bertylak corrected, waving his arms back and forth to dissipate the assumption. “Nobody here is in my employ. They are mostly my guests. I would never have servants; being a servant just leads to resentment.” He put his arm around Gawain’s shoulders and jostled the young man. “I smother everyone around me with friendship! What are they going to do against that? Cut the throat of the sleeping man who is their greatest of friends? I think not!”
“Admirable, but one cannot be friends with every person in the world.”
“And why not? Are you a doubter? I would never have guessed a fine upstanding knight like you to not have faith in the power of friendship!”
“I do!” Gawain panicked, practically falling out of his chair when he realized he was being skeptical of two of the knightly virtues. “Absolute faith! I would never turn down a true friend… it’s just a matter of whether or not… they actually are true.”
“We’ll make a pact then,” Bertylak proposed. He pulled one of his sleeves up over his fingers, but not to wipe at his own face again. Instead he reached out and wiped a speck of sauce from Gawain’s cheek. When the young man flinched he grabbed his head with his other hand to keep him steady. “Just a spot there; I’ve taken care of it. As I was saying, you and I are destined to be the truest of friends. I know you won’t deny me this. I propose that for every day that you are my guest there should be an exchange in our friendship. When night comes I will give to you, for you to keep and cherish, anything that I have received during the day. And you, Sir Gawain, will do the same for me in turn.”
“Most generous Lord Hautdesert, but there is no value to be had from such a pact. I will not be staying; there is somewhere I must be. I do not even know if I can stay the night.” Of bigger concern to him was making an oath that would conflict with the green fellow’s game. It seemed the only thing to be achieved by the friendship was a doubling of his dishonor in death. He couldn’t very well hand over a fatal blow to the neck to his new friend after receiving it.
“You’re not staying? Absurd. There’s nowhere else near here that you could possibly want to be when Yule comes proper. As my guest I won’t allow you to be wandering the wilderness on the holiest of days.”
“I have made a promise-”
“I’ve assumed our friendship because of my hospitality toward you,” Bertylak reasoned. “Your body took my medicine without a word of protest. That is the same as a promise. I expect this pact of you. Let me tell you of the wonders you’ll be gifted in friendship with me. I am the finest hunter in the world, and the noblest animals roam these woods just for the chance to be gloriously struck with my arrows.”
“I need not furs, for there is no snow.”
“More meat than fur!”
“I have just taken my last meal.”
“Charms of antler and boar ivory!”
“They would only decorate me in death.”
“What is all this about? So what if you’ve promised to die? You’re still here aren’t you?” Gawain was taken aback; despite the man’s prattling he had truly absorbed the situation. “One would think that the days leading up to death were the best time to have a true friend who won’t abandon you.”
“I’m honored Lord Bertylak,” Gawain said. Truly he felt that way, for his fingers trembled and the back of his throat quivered with that now unmistakable urge; the quivering of that tympanum was his stifled cry for aid. His begging for life. His shadowy emasculating shame. “I will take your pact, and I am sorry for how little I’ll have to offer.” The man leaned over and embraced Gawain tightly, rubbing his back as he might someone grieving. The closeness shocked the knight so that a sob nearly escaped him.
“Now that we’re friends you must dispense with this lord nonsense,” Bertylak told him as he pulled away. Gawain stiffened.
“What do you mean? Even as friends I will of course respect your position here.”
“Which I appreciate, but I am no lord! I am but the steward of this castle and the keeper of its grounds.”
“But… one of your ser… guests told me this was Bertylak Castle. It bears your name but you are not its lord?”
“That it does and that I am not. This is called my castle because its lord chooses not to have a name, at least not one in any tongue of man.”
“Who is your lord?”
“He is called the green knight.” The other conversations around the ring died. Someone choked on their sip, but made sure to do so silently. Heads hung. Gawain was perhaps the most affected of all: a mix of murky relief and plunging sadness.
“So this is the Green Chapel?” he asked.
“Our lord does sometimes call it that, yes. Since you know that name I take it he was the one who invited you.” Gawain nodded. “That’s wonderful! It means you can stay after all. We’ll have days to bond before whatever business you have with him.”
“Will we meet our host tonight?” one of the other guests asked from across the table, his face safely obscured by the throne.
“Yes yes, none of you need to worry,” Bertylak told the ring table. “The green knight will be joining us for dessert, or joining you rather. I should attend to my wife and help her with the duties that are really just my own but delayed.” He turned back to Gawain. “So we are on then, friend?”
“You have my word,” Gawain gave numbly. “Whatever I receive in the coming days will be yours. I look forward to what you’ll bring me as well.”
“Only the best,” Bertylak assured in a whisper. “We only offer the best here, but we also expect the best of our guests. Not what they’ve shown prior.” Before the knight could ask him to explain himself, Bertylak slid out of his chair and left the hall, singing as if the walls were lined with applauding portraits.
“So we just wait here until the green one deigns to show?” a face at the table asked the others. “I’ve had quite enough of this charade, making us half dead with the journey here and then scooping us up just to be hospitable.”
“My welcome was nothing but warm,” another face argued. “It wasn’t a green man who invited or welcomed me though. Was a green woman.” Murmurs.
“No, he’s a man. I’d remember a lady’s green bosom if I’d ever seen one.”
“You’re both wrong. It’s both. Green fellow has a green wife. It’s not so complicated. Rings of ivy around their fingers, wrapped once for each year of marriage.”
“Good lord, two of them! That should nullify my bargain; she never said anything about-” Kshiirk. They were interrupted by the ring table cracking. It was an old seam in the wood, but none had guessed it to be functional in any way. The tabletop bent, sending every last dish, bowl, and goblet sliding down into the fissure as if the stump of a table was eating the scraps. The woman with the jutting collarbone half-dove after hers, but the seam closed back up almost immediately. Her finger was badly pinched as a result, the nail tearing off when she freed it.
Blood poured, but she squeezed it in her other hand and bit her lip. None said anything; they were all shocked by the sight of it. Bertylak de Hautdesert had done his job admirably after all; they had forgotten the nature of the green knight thanks to his gregariousness. Of course they had all felt comfortable voicing their grievances, finding their loopholes, because they were warm and well fed. It was not they who were feasting; it was their host. The warmth of the reception was the fire under the pot, the dinner the fattening of the hogs. The blood from her finger flowed into the seam and disappeared. No stain left on the grain.
The table had animated because its master was near. Gawain’s heart raced as he felt the same aura from nearly a year ago. The grass between his toes moved in ripples, so he folded his legs up onto his seat. Then that unmistakable laugh came down the corridor and filled the room. Auhauhauhauhauhauhauhauhauh! In he strode, barely fitting under the archway, wearing even less clothing than the first time Gawain had seen him. His torso was completely bare and there was no branching circlet on his head.
Something else was different. From the laugh he knew the voice was the same, but that was not the face Gawain recalled. It was green as ever, eyes as free of worry and mossy beard as beautifully full, but the features were far from the same. Smaller nose. Fuller cheeks. Bigger forehead. Dimpled chin. While it seemed possible a man of undergrowth such as him could’ve produced a dimple by simply pressing into the moist detritus of his flesh, altogether his visage was too different to ignore. If what they had said of a wife was true, was there no limit to the green population? Was there a secret country meeting under the rotten logs of Logrys?
At least he wasn’t alone in his confusion; some of the others wore expressions suggesting they did not know that face either. Yet some seemed to as well. To Gawain this meant a pair of brothers or close friends perhaps. It meant the game was not so friendly after all and that the knight planned to deny him his right: death by a specific verdant hand.
“You’ve all made it!” the fellow bellowed. “Never doubted any of you. I trust my steward has taken excellent care of you thus far.” With one stride he stepped up onto the ring table and dropped into the throne. It had looked a little too big before when Bertylak wiggled around in it, but for the green knight it was a snug fit. “Go on, don’t be shy. Help yourselves!” They hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about until they managed to rip their eyes away from his silky splendor and see that the ring table was set yet again.
Yule pudding with a rainbow of fruity stripes. Fruit so swollen and glistening that a single poke might’ve made them burst into a flood of juice. Sweet cube dumplings arranged in flat-topped pyramids, standing just short enough to not be seen from the bottom of their eyes when admiring their host.
A few were frustrated by all this food shuffling and refused to partake, but others had simply been starving too long to care. The green man might’ve pulled each cake out of his throat and presented them as soggy lumps; the woman with the jutting collarbone would’ve still accepted. Gawain was closer to the latter than the former, especially now that he needed sugary fuel for his racing mind. He swiftly demolished half of a dumpling pyramid by himself, only looking to see if he had his host’s attention when the thing collapsed. He was still turned away, discussing something with another guest.
“Is that the same man that sent you here?” Sand whispered. He was among those not eating.
“I’m naw Shoor,” Gawain admitted through a full mouth. He swallowed it down painfully. “There is no forgetting that laugh. It echoed in the halls of Camylot for a year. It might still be doing so, but I’m no longer there to know. What I do know is that is the face of a different man.”
“My reading is the same Sir Bog. We should perhaps discuss-”
“I will discuss it with him,” Gawain interrupted. “He is the only party here that concerns me. It will be dealt with man to man, and no sand will get between us.”
“Don’t be a fool. Whoever this shrub is, he knows what he’s doing. He knows this is a hall full of natural enemies, and he’s counting on that. If we-”
“No sneaking around,” he said resolutely. “To his face I will tell him that our game is void if I am to be done in by the wrong man. If he so much as tries to pass himself off as-” Pwack! The green knight’s bare foot slapped down on the table. His seat was turned away, so all Gawain could see was that leg, but it certainly seemed as offended as something with ears. It was to be the same trick Bertylak used, spinning the center column to face whatever conversation most deserved his time, or so the young knight assumed.
His foot did pull, but it did so mightily and magically. It was not the seat to spin this time, but the whole ring around it. There was no mechanism. The wood and roots of the outer structure and all the chairs flowed, only stiffening again when the desired rotation was achieved. The whirlwind ride startled everyone, but branches wrapped around their wrists or legs for but a moment kept them from falling out of their chairs. Gawain was most stunned of all, his hair blown to the side by the wind of it. The new green knight was directly before him, chin resting on his knuckles, ready with his response.
“Something concerns you, Sir Gawain?”
“I… I’d rather we discuss it in private. Man to man.” He hated how weak he sounded. Man to man was not a demand. It was a plea. He was a shameful small person who could only bear the scrutiny of one, who would wither in any situation that was only as bad as man to man to man.
“Look around you,” the green man whispered mockingly, his pupils darting left and right. Those who ate paid no attention. Those who didn’t pretended to pay none, staring at the vine and bug-covered ceiling as if it was the painted ceiling of a cathedral. “We are in private. Besides, we’re all friends here. You can withstand it.” He reached out and poked Gawain in the shoulder. His first instinct was truly to snap at him like a cornered rodent, but he didn’t want a blood-drenched repeat of the disaster at the round table.
“Fine. I don’t even know where you got my name to use it, man who calls himself the green knight, but you are not my opponent.”
“Why do you say that? Have you met another with skin like this? Aside from my horse of course.” Gawain winced. This fellow knew that there had been a horse the first time. And his name. And that laugh.
“Your face isn’t even similar. I do my best not to judge men by the color of their skin, and in this case I am succeeding. You are not him. I have no arrangement with you.”
“My dear boy, I had to get a new head because you cut off the last one! Auhauhauhauhauhauhauhauh!” Now the others were staring, even as they squirreled more dessert away in their cheeks as if it needed to be stored for next winter. “What? Did you expect me to just put the ragged edge of that old thing back on and show up to dinner in such a state? Honestly! You’re to blame… though my decapitation was all in good fun of course. As will be yours.”
“But… how does one even get a new-”
“The same way one gets green skin, and that’s an old family secret I’m afraid.”
“How can I believe you? Everything is at stake in this game. I can’t just-”
“Which tiny detail bears repeating?” the green knight asked in a whisper. He was leaned so far forward, yet his thighs were still in the throne. A normal man should never be able to bend and squeeze into such a shape, like seeing a noble hart slouching on its bottom. “Shall I describe the order the knights sat around your table? Of course the famous pentangle is all that matters, and that you were skewered on the point of free-giving.” Gawain gulped; the clumps of sugar left in the back of his throat were like boulders.
“You are he then.”
“Yes I am the one who rode into your hall and who played the game so well. My turn is coming. Four days from now.”
“Is that the day?” Gawain asked, realizing he hadn’t bothered to learn how much time had been spent in Lossys or dead to the world on Gringolet’s back.
“Correct. In four days’ time it will be a year and a day since the Bread Parade in Camylot castle. You will stay here in the chapel and enjoy our wonders until then. If you thought this meal was good, you won’t believe the splendid flavors that manifest when your death is approaching. Trust me. Sour fruit will feel as sweet and smooth as silk on your tongue. Fish will marble and melt in your mouth like stewed oxtail. Best of all will be your last meal. I could just serve you a handful of dirt and you would praise me for it, but you’ll be treated far better than that.”
Sir Gawain had no idea how to respond, beaten into submission as he was by the fellow’s generosity. Someone else called out to their host, timidly, perhaps made so by the bloodless thrashing Gawain had just received. The green knight smiled and gently slapped the young man’s cheek, then he slapped his foot down on the table and spun it again.
“You cut off his head?” Sand asked once both their stomachs had settled.
“I did.” When he looked around he realized he’d lost his orientation. The hall was no longer a room. Instead it was a chamber in a hive, and the guests were the spoils brought in. They would be spoiled and prodded until they broke up into honey and then stored deep inside, waiting for the next round of guests and desserts that needed topping. What was this horrible trap, and how could the green knight set it without King Arthyr ever knowing?
“So he is indestructible,” Sand continued. “Worrying. I suppose I still haven’t tried fire. Green as he is he’ll make an awful smoke, but only rocks and water don’t burn.” Gawain stood up, half expecting the arms of his chair to wrap around him and pull him back down. He had eaten dinner, he had eaten dessert, and he had made conversation. There was simply no obligation left at the table. He was allowed to walk out, with the green knight not even sparing a glance for him. He chose the wrong exit on his first attempt, shuffling with his head down after that until he was safely in a hallway he thought he recognized.
Difficult to tell, certainly, as the plants grew so fast as to be constantly in motion. The chandeliers had shed a few petals, but their edges were already partly absorbed into the floor like bright soft cobblestones. Gawain almost passed the door to his room, for a net of vines was draped across its open threshold. He grabbed them to rip them away, but felt a cool ripple in the air. There was a rustling too, as if every blade of grass had turned his way to see what he would do. The knight bent down and lifted them instead, relieved he could at leas shut the door once inside without crushing a flower in the seams.
The ax was right where he’d left it, taunting him by not setting down roots even though the floor was obviously fertile. It knew it would be moved soon, and would have a much more enriching drink than the drops of water under the chapel’s feet. His shield was right there as well, so he took it up and sat on the edge of the bed, gazing into the eyes of Mary the virgin, looking for advice or pity.
He stared so long that she eventually responded in a voice he never would have imagined to be hers. In truth it wasn’t. It belonged to the girl who refused to be called a servant. She let herself in with a folded stack of clothing for the next few days and a glass pitcher of fresh water for him. The clothes she set on the bed, but the water had to go in a cupboard.
“The plants will get into it if it’s left out,” she explained. He thanked her. “Did you get all your questions answered?”
“Yes, but I already have more.” He tucked the shield under his bed, sending a few mice scampering into the roots of the other furniture. “Where did you take my horse?”
“We have no stables, but the animals will be safe the closer they stay to the castle. Your horse brought you in and trotted right back out.”
“She’s still out there then. I know Gringolet well enough to know that she won’t abandon me until I’ve drawn my last breath. She’ll be able to smell or hear my death from whatever window she’s standing nearest.” Gawain had a thought. “Bertylak said there would be hunting… but you don’t have any stables? What does he ride?”
“Whatever he wants to,” she answered with a smile. “It’s a forest. It’s positively full of animals to ride. Friendly in their obedience, playful in their fleeing, and respectfully delectable on the table.”
Continued in Part Three