(reading time: 1 hour, 37 minutes)
Not a soul came to wake him the next day. Practically in mourning was he, with only three days left, having spent most of the morning unconscious. It was like Death had tricked him into yet another game, borrowing what little time was left. Gawain washed the resulting tears out of his eyes with the pitcher of water. The sun shone aggressively through the stained glass, drying his face.
He was left with something worse than mourning over his lost morning: the prospect of the rest of the day. How was he to spend it? In pursuit of a method of survival? Something in the castle was perhaps enchanted enough to save him. The servants called themselves guests, so there could be an untapped font of kindness somewhere; the miraculous charm in question might be freely offered if he asked.
Or should death be embraced in a bear hug, with the last days spent the way he’d largely spent the last year? A castle such as the Green Chapel could’ve had cat-sized dragons in need of slaying hiding in its wardrobes and chests. Bertylak would be out on a hunt today in order to feed them, and he had extended his hand in friendship.
A hunt could be the best of both strategies: something to take his mind off the ax in the corner and a chance of bringing home a hide as strong as the golden fleece that could warm his neck on the sudden chill of the fourth day. Yes, that was his decision, but he had no desire to wander about the halls in search of the steward. Sir Gawain looked about the room for his old clothes, for his solution was tucked away inside them: the ogre’s eye.
With a squeeze of it he could see with its magic, and he was confident it would show him around the castle without making any demands. It was his resource, as Sir Uriel had been so adamant in pointing out. After checking each layer of the clean stack brought to him the previous night he realized they weren’t there. Under the bed was nothing but mice and snails with glittering eyes. Out the window was just a never ending view of the forest with no line for drying pants.
There would have to be a blind expedition after all, just to find the item that could find the direction for his day. He dressed himself carefully, fearing bugs were in the folds, but they knew better than to interfere with a guest’s stay.
“Oh,” he realized aloud as one of the snails climbed a bedpost and stared at him, “you’re all guests too. So many snails because you always win that game. The green fellow goes for his chop and your heads just squeeze back into your shells.” He tapped its shell, but it didn’t retract and fall like the garden dwellers he was familiar with. Its eyes partially retracted and it made a little burbling sound like a cat purring underwater.
He left quickly after that, having realized the room belonged far more to them than it ever would to him. Even as he wandered the halls he couldn’t help but dwell on the appearance of their shells: ringed with age, thick as a turtle’s, and veined with rich cinnamon reds and clay browns like petrified wood. This must’ve been what happened when a snail was allowed to keep itself sequestered away from the birds with their probing beaks. They simply swelled like trees of the old growth, but that would mean they had been there longer than Arthyr’s ambition, longer than the Pendragynn name.
The air never became less stuffy, yet somehow he’d wound up in a courtyard with no roof. It wasn’t so confusing when he looked up and saw the sun mostly blocked. Trees growing between the stone walls intertwined their branches, the patterns undoubtedly artistic, almost like a lattice inviting vines.
Longing for Camylot’s courtyard, he listened for the tittering or cooing of birds, but there wasn’t any. Such creatures had little room to fly thanks to the verdant ceiling, but there were plenty of dragonflies and damsels to take their place. Once the bugs realized Gawain was no threat in his invasion they filled the air with buzzes and chirps. To him it was a far more grating sound than the cooing of a dove.
His search was for the laundry, so he followed a stone wall with plenty of open windows to hopefully catch a whiff of wet or soapy air. Before too long there was a promising splash, but following it took him down a set of stone steps. The courtyard proved much larger than he’d originally anticipated, as it turned into a rectangular garden of descending layers, all leading to what he was now sure was some kind of fountain. He stopped before seeing it even though it was just one layer of tall dark bushes away.
The splashes were light and slow, deliberate but certainly not the stuff of wringing stains from cloth. Someone must have been bathing in the fountain, and there was no doubting it when she started to sing.
The sun ys syn not from thy gryn
so spots yn eyes must be wythyn
blynkered in moryls
Eying us clyr they cluck
tys wrong to roll and tuck
like babes ye quarryl
Gawain slowly backed away, his reasons many. He had no intention of spying on a woman in the bath, even if her choice of font was questionable with so many equally questionable characters roaming about the grounds.
Secondly was the voice. The accent was one of Anwynn. Songs from there were just as likely to be spells, and to listen was to have it cast upon him. Her tone was soft and deep, like reaching one’s hand into the folds of a velvety cloak that hadn’t been worn in years, searching for a misplaced pin. The richness in each word he recognized, but he did not want to accept it, so he backed away even further. Up the stairs. Past two layers of bushes never trimmed yet perfectly shaped. Right into the snapping trap of another woman’s voice.
“That would be the green lady,” Lady Hautdesert said, startling Gawain badly. He whirled around to see her lounging on the sill of one of the empty windows, her back to the stone, an open book in her lap. Her clothes were just as thin and comfortable as those she’d worn the previous night, and her smile no less bewitchingly impish.
“My lady,” Gawain said with a bow. “I’m sorry to disturb you; I was just looking for the laundry. I misplaced something in my old clothing.”
“I would be happy to escort you,” she said, snapping her book shut and draping her legs out into the courtyard.
“No, I couldn’t possibly be such a burden… but… you say the green lady is down there? Who… exactly is she? There was talk at the table last night that the green knight has a wife, equal to him in emerald countenance.”
“The talk is true. She is his wife and they share an exact shade. It does look almost,” she leaned in and whispered, “incestuous.” He recoiled. “I jest of course. Their business is not mine or yours.”
“Is it too much of an invasion to ask why she didn’t join us for dinner last night? Busy as you were, you made an appearance.”
“I can tell you what I’ve learned on my own without spilling any of their secrets.” She looked up at the branching lattice as if the right wording plugged one of the holes. “She simply cannot stand his company. It is a marriage of convenience, for there is much work to be done at the castle and he would prefer someone else do it while he’s off convincing the big strong men of the world to visit.”
“Perhaps she is not such a villain then,” Gawain wondered aloud, “for I too cannot stand him. He is your lord, and I know it is disrespectful to say this, but he is to have my head in a few days’ time anyway. This resentment would either leak out of me here or from the stump of my severed neck.”
“Much can happen within these earthen walls,” she said after a moment, eyes roaming over him.
“I have made a promise to die.”
“Promises can and must overlap if one is to fill his life with people. When you have so many obligations that there’s no way not to disappoint someone, it makes avoiding it all and reading a chapter of a book all the more rewarding.” She dragged a finger across the spine of the tome. There was no title that he could see. “You see that time and effort must be made for yourself, even if it turns you into a liar.”
“That is fine for the delicate creatures of the world, my lady. You are relied upon, and strong I do not doubt, but in these halls. I must have the strength that can travel any road, fight any foe, and laugh at any danger. The code of the knight affords me no fear, no doubt, and no changes that might make a liar of me.”
“Then I pity you,” she said, her eyes jumping off him like a startled frog into a pond. “For making a promise that must be kept versus one that will be kept makes you completely alone. Your oath is your only friend, and since it’s not a bargain you won’t even get something from it in return.”
“I’ve already had my reward. I had the privilege of chopping off the green knight’s head. He must have his fair turn.” She did not respond to this at all, and they both ended up listening to the green lady’s last splashes. They heard her leave the fountain, and from the wet slaps against the stone Gawain guessed her feet were as large as her husband’s.
“The laundry is just down that way,” Hautdesert said when they couldn’t hear the dripping anymore. She pointed, then moved as if to return to reading.
“If… if I could have but one more moment of your time,” Gawain requested. “What I’m really after today is your husband. I wish to join him on his hunt in these wild lands. I’m more than capable with a bow.” She turned back to him.
“I’m sorry Sir Gawain.” She had learned his name somehow. “Bertylak left early in the morning on bullback. He won’t be returning until shortly before dinner, just enough time for his prize to be disarticulated, roasted, and served.” The knight’s shoulders slumped. “You know, he has done this so much that I can tell you exactly how it will all happen. Would you like to know?”
He nodded, though he wasn’t sure what exactly she offered. It became clearer when she patted the stone, urging him to sit beside her. He did so, somewhat rigidly, but she more than accounted for his discomfort by turning and arching her legs over his, leaning her thighs against his chest. The young man’s body attempted to freeze, but his breathing was too heavy to complete the effect. He rocked back and forth slightly because of it. Was such conduct typical of the Green Chapel?
There was no glass behind him, and there was no doubt she knew what she was doing when she pushed against him. He was forced to wrap his arms around her thigh and ankle to stay upright. Only when he was latched on did she crack open her book and pretend to read from it the tale of Bertylak de Hautdesert’s hunt.
“With so many guests for Yule, each day would be a true test of his skill. What host would offer them nothing but the leaner meats of geese and hens? Their journeys had taken so much from them that they looked hollowed out, and only blood as red as theirs could replenish. On this, the first day of the greatest celebration in the land, only venison would do for dinner.
The deer of the land were not as black-eyed and foolish as those elsewhere. They observed the comings and goings of magic within the wood, and learned to spot the possibilities all about them. With their sharpness came pride as delicate as their thin ankles. They were so easily insulted, so the great hunter set out upon the back of a heavy bull.
The animal’s flat-hoofed steps crushed and snapped everything in its way. It was a grating din to those who lived in the undergrowth proper, and all the more insufferable when its giant shoulders knocked over saplings. Bertylak directed his steed further and further from his home, into the territory of beasts that hadn’t seen him enough to fear him.
Even he was continually amazed by what life could do with just a little magic in its breath and breast. The ferns furled and unfurled rhythmically, producing music. Rainbows shined in the wings of the flies. They couldn’t resist sharing it either, so if he was still they would land upon his nose and hold them out, becoming a pair of spectacles that enhanced every color seen. All of this was from the coming and going of the green knight, for he left thin enchantments behind whenever he passed from Anwynn to the world of men.
Bertylak nocked an arrow as the bull’s shoulders rolled under him, like waves passing under his boat. The forest could grow no denser, so he was surrounded by walls of vines and bushes as tall as houses. The deer were following his path of casual destruction, just beyond the green veils, frothing up their anger to strike. To antagonize them further he told his bull to use its horns. It obeyed, lowering its head and ripping plants from the ground. Their dark wet roots snapped, each one a strike on the spirits of the stags.
The bull tossed the uprooted things into the air and Bertylak shot them with lightning fast arrows, pinning them to trees one by one like butterflies in a glass case. He sang while he did so, intentionally stupid and boisterous: a song only an oblivious man could sing. That was the last they could take, at least, the last that one of them could.
Out bounded a stag that more than rivaled the bull in weight. A beard as thick as a man, with a mighty beard of his own, wrapped around its neck and hung, so much a part of its noble image that its shaking peeled like a series of bells. This was no ordinary hart: the heartiest of harts. Its breath its beat. Its stare its charge. Every last hair on it as green as the forest that raised it.
On its head were mounted antlers sharper than swords at every point, with more points than usual too. There was no felt, so the green did not extend to them. Instead they were a creamy silver, like pewter melting into the porridge it tried to contain. This was the only animal that interested Bertylak, so he dropped the pretense of the song immediately and dismounted. His next arrow was aimed, but the green stag could not be felled by a single shot, even if it struck. What followed was a silly dance, neither wishing to be the first to attack. The bull absentmindedly chewed on magical plants that would surely give it indigestion, or perhaps a garden in its belly, while the two slowly circled each other and drifted deeper into the trees.
The stag walked behind one, but didn’t come out the other side. Quite the trick, as Bertylak no longer had anywhere to aim his arrow-”
“This green stag,” Gawain interrupted, “does it have anything to do with the knight himself? I know he had a green horse, and now there’s a green wife. Why is all this green coming to Logrys?”
“Are you saying a wife falls in the same category as a horse and a hart?” she asked disapprovingly, ignoring his real question. He blushed. “Since you’re one for promises, will you promise me no more interruptions?” He nodded. “Excellent. Where was I?”
“It disappeared behind a tree.”
“It disappeared behind a tree, but only to Bertylak. It was still very much there, very much watching him. Though he had walked these woods many times before, keenly aware was he that it never got any less dangerous. It was a game where any loss was a permanent one, where that opponent would never be seen again. Inherently cruel, but not so cruel as to override a man’s desire for red meat.
He would not back down. Back at the castle his newest and closest friend, Sir Gawain, awaited his return. They had started their own game, and on his honor he would not return without a wonderful gift for the king’s knight. Gawain was known far and wide as free-giving, so the gifts he offered each night would surely be splendid, and possibly even pulled from thin air.
The silence grated on the hunter, but there was little he could do if it wouldn’t show itself again. Cautiously he returned to his bull, but the oblivious beast might’ve been his downfall. The stag, head held low like a stalking lion, hid behind it, and as soon as Bertylak tried to remount he was charged! The beast’s antlers grabbed him as it leapt over the bull; he was carried far and pinned to a tree.
He was lucky, for none of its prongs pierced his flesh deeply. His quiver crushed against his back; the only arrow he had was in his hand. The hunter thought quickly and dropped it, catching it between his knees and then thrusting, putting its tip directly into the stag’s forehead. It was not dead, but the wound was enough to force it back and to drop him. He plucked two arrows from the heap that had been his quiver and fired them together, knowing the beast would block at least one.
And so it did, one arrow lodging in an antler. The other hit lower, just below the eye where the skin was soft. Blinded it turned away, purely out of instinct, and Bertylak responded with another volley. Two more arrows found its side and the animal was felled, silencing and stilling the musical ferns it crushed under its massive bulk.
He heard the other deer flee. They weren’t too frightened to defend their home, but they were familiar enough with Bertylak to know that once he claimed his prize he would not claim another that day. The carcass was loaded onto the bull’s back, something that had to be done by the bull itself thanks to the stag’s size. They rode back to their castle victorious, eager to see the look on Sir Gawain’s face when he realized what sort of powerful friend he’d made.”
She shut the book and looked at him, but her legs kept him pinned down, making him feel an awful lot like the Bertylak in the story, beset upon by numerous sharpened prongs.
“This has all happened already? He has returned from his hunt? The day is far from over.”
“It hasn’t come to pass quite yet,” she admitted. “I would guess my husband is right at the part where he starts singing to rile them.”
“Then how is it you know what will occur? Has your lord lent you clairvoyance, at least of the other green things of this forest?”
“No, I’ve just seen it enough times to imagine it well. Our castle rarely changes. We open ourselves up to the world around us, people wander in or are drawn by the green knight’s boasting, and then they dissolve under our hospitality.”
“Dissolve?” He took his arms off her, putting great strain on his lower body. “What does such a nefarious word mean here?”
“Why do you look so frightened, good sir?” she asked. Her eyes were wide and her mouth slightly open. The question sounded genuine, but there was something about her expression. It was a challenge. A rehearsed challenge. Or perhaps one that many had failed before. “You came here with the word decapitation inside your head and it didn’t give you this much pause.”
“Well… that’s an honest word. It means only one thing. There are no other implications. There is no-”
“Depth? You should only fear my word if you fear me. I speak of people melting and reforming, of spirits with new values once they see the harm of what they’d served before. When you dissolve,” her voice softened, “here in these walls, your individual pieces drift apart. Each one gets to think about what it wants without the others intruding. Things like promises don’t hold together; they separate like layers in resting milk.”
“A man does not break,” he said, but the foundation of his voice was too weak to make his point. His midsection burned with the effort it took to keep from falling back into the castle. Her legs were right there, sliding closer with each moment, but he refused to grab them. He tried to say something else, about fortitude and steadiness, but he lost his balance. Fast as a startled thrush, her closest leg arced over his head and caught his back, squeezing him between the two. She was surprisingly strong.
“A man does not break,” she repeated with a cluck of her tongue. “I’ve never heard anything so absurd. Most men do nothing but break, cracking on the inside with every other word. Denying their weaknesses as well as their true strengths. Getting lost in places no spirit should ever go.” The grip of her thighs tightened on the last sentence. It didn’t seem possible, but she spoke as if she knew of Lossys. Her words were like an accusation of being there even now.
“Will you help me?” Gawain asked desperately, unsure of where the question had bubbled up from. She smiled, as if watching his adult shell dissolve and leave a sniffling child behind. The knight found enough of his composure to ask another question, to tie it to something much more imminent. “My reputation precedes me, and unfortunately exceeds me. I would love to give your husband a gift, but I’ve slept half the light away, and by the terms of our game I must give him what I receive during this day.”
“That is not such a problem. I will make something for you.” She tilted him forward so he could relax and then took her legs back, tucking them under her as if the stone of the windowsill wasn’t painful for her knees at all. “These are Bertylak’s favorite.” He assumed she would start talking about a recipe, but the Lady Hautdesert leaned in and kissed his cheek. Her lips lingered there, soft and warm, transferring a hundred little sensations to him that tingled through his spine and prickled on his palms.
This was not the kind kiss of a noble caring for her underlings, nothing like the peck of Gwenyvyr when someone was knighted in her presence. Delightful at first, it quickly burned, so much so that he worried magic was at play. When her lips pulled back he was forced to acknowledge that it was nothing but a blush steaming under his skin, the pain the result of the contrast. He was doomed, yet his body still reacted as if full of life.
“He… he will love it,” Gawain stammered. “Thank you Lady Hautdesert. I… I must be going.” The knight put his feet on the grass, surprised by the wave of relief from simply being on solid ground again. His feet wandered away without giving the rest of him much choice.
“Sir Gawain,” the lady called after him, and when he turned she pointed along the wall of the courtyard. “The laundry is that way.”
“Of course! Thank you.” He bowed and nearly fell over, expecting her to snicker. She didn’t, but he still felt her smile on him while he stared at the grass and rounded stones of the pathway, tan as sapling heartwood. Putting his mind to the various colors of the garden helped him escape without embarrassing himself further. Flowers red like hummingbird breasts. Leaves of two greens and a third in their veins. A bug blue in iridescence, so large that its flapping wings sounded leathery.
Eventually he found the laundry just inside, devoid of any servants. Whatever did the castle’s work it had to be separate from the guests that lived there. The woman who had brought him clean clothes wasn’t even passive, let alone invisible like the pixies or termites that put food on the table without any eyes seeing them. The laundry too was alive with activity, but had not a soul manning it. Bubbles rose from a large wooden tub, the water still swirling like someone had stirred it moments ago. The smell of soap and flower petals was strong in the air, even over the constant fragrance of the Green Chapel.
“Hello?” he asked, sensing that they had scurried away as soon as they knew he was coming. There was no point in trying to find any hidden eyes, they were too skillful, but he checked the folds of the clean stacked bedding regardless. While he searched his mind turned to the nature of his game with Bertylak. The kiss was owed, surely, but what else? He couldn’t think of much way to deliver unto his friend the extra sleep or the conversations with his wife.
Not everything, he decided, just as his hand wrapped around an orb tucked deep into a pile of soiled linens. Out came the Cyclipse’s eye. Excellent, it was not lost. For a moment he squeezed in panic, for since he had received it he might need to freely give it, but no. There was a difference between receiving and finding, and aside from that it was not the first time it had entered his possession. It was his belonging before the Green Chapel, and so was not part of their bargain twice over.
It responded to the squeeze, edges filling with warm tendrils of light, like those one might see in the periphery after being bashed in the temple. Gawain didn’t want the spying eyes of the laundry to see whatever it had to show, so he scurried out quickly, hunched over. The dim corridor allowed him to see it more clearly, for there was no sunlight’s glare.
Incredibly focused was he, but the eye less so. Whatever it tried to show him was still a blur: a hobbling lump of orange worms with white tips. The space around it, warped by the curvature of the eye, lacked distinct features, but the color was familiar. It looked very much like the corridors of the castle, their walls and corners lost in moss.
“I think you’re the one that needs to be more resourceful,” he quietly scolded the item, squeezing it tighter as he walked. That did help it focus, the worms stilling into distinct parts of the entity. Limbs. Sleeves. A hat so large that it could only serve ritualistic purpose. “You’re almost there. Who is this person? Show me their face.” He squeezed it as hard as he could.
The eye grew hot in his hands. Too late he recalled the Cyclipse’s deadly beam. A burst of it shot out, straight up into the ceiling, turning a large flower into a smoldering star. The blast disturbed a cloud of insects that had been all but invisible in the foliage a moment ago. The knight swatted them away, actually striking none of them, thanks partly to his need to pass the screaming heat of the eye between his hands.
When the buzzing stopped he heard something else: shuffling. He turned toward it and hid the eye behind his back, fingers still dancing around it to keep from burning. The old woman who had accompanied Lady Hautdesert appeared from around the corner, wearing the silly hat from the eye’s vision. Gawain muttered a curse at the thing for acting as if it had some great revelation hidden under its crystal when it was really just the sight around the next bend.
“My lady,” he greeted with another bow, though not as low so she couldn’t see the eye held against the small of his back. Unfortunately he didn’t know what her correct title even was. None had mentioned her name or position within the castle. His best guess was that she was a keeper of magic rings, since even now, with no guests or ceremony at play, her hands were overburdened with strange and beautiful gems.
She shuffled up to him and wordlessly stared at the ceiling, at the smoldering bald stone and its thin aura of smoke. He offered a weak apology, stammering because he didn’t know how to phrase it. The woman had to know the nature of the spot, for it was too high and too perfect in shape to be created by anything ordinary.
“I also apologize for leaving you such a mystery,” he offered when she had nothing to say about his little accident. “We should introduce ourselves. I am Sir Gawain the seasonal, knight of King Arthyr’s round table. You are… a noble lady of the ring table… is there a name between those titles?” She closed her eyes, but it wasn’t a blink; they stayed shut as if she’d fallen asleep. He thought perhaps she rummaged through her disorganized memories for her misplaced name.
Her peaceful moment afforded him an opportunity to scrutinize her hands and their decoration. A theory of Sand’s popped back into his head: she had her spirit seduced away by a fey man. All that was left was a body and the shreds of stately dignity holding it together. That would make her little more than a valuable piece of furniture. A portable jewelry box. If her rings were indeed magic, then their enchanted snapping at each other would have little to no effect on their wielder, for she was as empty as the Cyclipse’s pond.
The woman’s eyes opened once more, but there was no fresh message sparkling in them. She lifted her shaking hands and pinched one of her rings, pulling it off with great difficulty. Its embrace of her finger stretched the skin, bunched it at the knuckle, but it didn’t redden or tear. Eventually it came off with a pop of the joint and she offered it to the young knight.
Its like he’d never seen. Its body was stone instead of metal, surface smoother than cream. In color it was a mix of soft red and orange, like a clam shell that somehow turned along with all the autumn leaves. Its top was flattened into a plate shape, and set in it, like a natural vein simply polished, was a four-pointed star of mother of pearl. Even in such a tiny amount the substance was extraordinary to behold, almost moving Gawain to tears.
A special sort of white, that mother of pearl. It looked like the material the one god would give his angels so that they could paint over and seal bloody body-strewn battlefields. It was a hue of cleansing, of light shining on misdeeds until they vaporized. Equally vaporized was the last shred of doubt within him, for that ring was magic.
The woman made her most convincing impersonation of a thinking person yet, pushing it toward him, clearly encouraging him to take it.
“You… you want me to have this?” She nodded. “I don’t… why? Why would you offer something like this to me? What is the purpose of its enchantment?” She smiled, skin bunching up in the corners of her mouth, but not exactly in the corners and not symmetrically, giving her a rather abstract expression that could’ve been anything from disrespect to amusement.
The temptation was powerful and immediate, and not solely because of its entrancing aura. The spirit of Sir Uriel had advised him to be resourceful, and here was another resource free of cost. Already he was tired of helping that damned eye to focus, and the ring seemed like a much more collected magical thing, happy to be inanimate and to serve.
Of concern was her position. Why would someone no doubt living there with the approval of the green knight assist him in any way? The idea that the green fellow was not all bad, that his primary purpose was actually simple fun, could not be entertained. It made hope burn too painfully in his chest. No honorable man would stretch out this torture; he would just end it. His game would be a day instead of a year and a day.
Slogging through the mire of these thoughts, Gawain nearly took the ring without even realizing. His fingers stalled at the last moment as he remembered his promise. If he received the ring he would have to give it to Bertylak that evening. It wouldn’t be able to help him in his single ax stroke of need.
“I am honored my lady, but I cannot accept this gift. Not now. I know it is terribly rude to ask when you’ve been as generous as all the others, but would you hold it for me? I have much to do in the next few days, my hands will be kept busy, and I dread losing it. Would you keep it for me and offer it again when I request?”
Still there wasn’t a word in her; he didn’t even know if she could open her lips. Faster than aged hands like hers should’ve been able, she dropped it into her palm and closed her fist. Immediately she open it again, and the ring had vanished. Gawain blinked, but it wasn’t hidden in the sparkle of the others and it hadn’t fallen to the grass below.
“Is it gone!?” he sputtered, nearly choking on his surprise. She turned her hand over to reveal the ring right back where it started, tight on her finger as if it had never let go. He breathed a sigh of relief. Her strange smile was larger now; it seemed she was having at least a little fun with him. The last thing she offered was a wave, and the young knight did his best to read intent into it.
There was a certain amount of levity to it. It very well could have been a statement that all was well, and the ring was still his whenever he wanted it.
Upon returning to his room Gawain spent the next few hours fiddling with the ogre’s eye, training himself to use it. At the cost of a few burns on the wall, and one that nearly set his bed’s canopy ablaze, he learned the exact amount of pressure to apply for each function. There was a precise level where it filled with images, and while not perfectly clear they at least came with a tolerable level of warmth.
It showed him a number of the other people within the Green Chapel, and he assumed their activities were either current or soon to come. Swiping his thumb over half the eye, with the speed of page turning, usually convinced it to show him someone new. The start of each vision was always a blur, but each person had their own color and texture before their skin and face appeared.
The old woman had been a mound of orange worms with white tips. Lady Hautdesert was like drops of dew full of sparkling sunlight. Bertylak was fronds of dyed leather, drooping and bouncing as if alive with laughter. Sand was a dim pool of water, like a deep well. Try as he did, he couldn’t get the eye to show him the green knight. Eventually he decided such a vision would be useless anyway; he already knew there was nothing but viscera within him.
When he was done with the visions he tried to loose its heat the way he would an arrow, but it could not be done without burning his hand. Even a gauntlet would not have protected him from the intense heat, meaning sadly that it was of little use as a weapon. The only time that power would matter would involve the green fellow going back on his word in some way and Gawain sacrificing his hand to spare his neck.
One of the guests, the specific variety that were trying to overstay their welcome, whom he had taken to calling the overstayed, knocked on his door. They didn’t bother entering, merely informing him through it that Bertylak had returned from his hunt successfully and wished to meet with him in one of the storerooms outside the kitchen.
The young knight was too distracted by the giant snails in his room, which had grown more numerous and which didn’t retract their eyes after the startling knock, to ask them where this storeroom was, but the castle provided. Upon opening his door there was a clear trail of pink flowers that hadn’t been there before, blooming one by one along the wall like a string with decorative beads.
He followed it to a dry room with an earthen floor. One wall had stacked casks, with bundles of dry herbs stuffed into the space between them, and another had a crate full of plump vegetables still wearing their leaves and healthy coats of crumbling dirt. The place was something of a relief from the swarming life elsewhere. A deep breath put him back in Camylot, scurrying around its many empty rooms, forgetting whatever he was supposed to fetch for one of the elders.
There was a gap in one corner that looked perfect for the round table, and something did move within, but his hopes were quickly dashed when Bertylak emerged from it. He dragged a large stag by its antlers, aided at the other end by someone he had never seen, presumably one of the overstayed.
“Why do you look glum friend?” the steward asked before he even finished dragging it to the center of the room. “I thought you’d be pleased to see me.”
“I am!” he assured. “Absolutely so. I was caught is all, in a moment of homesickness.”
“If you were at home then you couldn’t be my guest. Hyeeah!” Bertylak heaved its head one final time and threw it down, raising pale dust. With a look he excused the servant, leaving them alone. “What do you think?” Gawain stared back.
“What do I think… of what?”
“Of your gift of course!” He dropped to one knee and placed the stag’s chin on it. “He put up a brilliant fight, but only the best for you Sir Gawain.”
“Oh, these are the spoils of the day,” Gawain said with a thin smile, but he was more confused than ever. Lady Hautdesert had described, in great detail, the sort of creature her husband would best on his hunt. What he brought back was large, but it was not the unforgettable beast from the tale. That had been even bigger, its antlers were like silver, and its fur was green. Had she lied to him, or simply embellished the tale for his enjoyment? She had to know it would engender disappointment upon his actually seeing it.
“Yes, and you must tell me what you think before it does spoil!”
“It’s beautiful; I’m honored to receive it.” He bent down and stroked its fur, fighting back flashes of a dead dove, its neck flopping back and forth in Arthyr’s grip.
“And something tells me that a free-giving soul such as yourself knows exactly what to do with it,” Bertylak hinted, tongue poking out between his teeth.
“Oh… well I suppose it would be selfish to keep it all. It can’t possibly fit in a single stomach. What do you say to the chapel’s kitchen having it, preparing it as a meal for all the guests here?”
“Now that’s an idea,” Bertylak said with an approving chuckle. “I’ll take it there straight away so it will be ready for tonight, but before I do, do you have anything for me?” The man was giddy, almost childlike, actually peering behind Gawain’s back in case he hid a present there. The young knight stood, prompting his friend to do the same, restoring a little dignity to the proceedings.
“Yes, I did come into possession of something today, and I would very much like you to have it. Please, if you would, close your eyes.”
“A surprise! Excellent. I just hope none of the other guests gave you a good slap.” He squeezed his eyes shut and waited. Gawain had no intention of delaying the exchange, but the roof of his mouth itched. The transfer should have been trivial, as he had kissed the cheek of numerous figures out of respect.
Eventually, nearly tripping on the hart between them, he pressed his lips against the man’s cheek. When he did he immediately realized the source of his consternation. Honor bound he was to deliver his best approximation of the exact kiss, and Lady Hautdesert had not been polite. Despite its placement there was no doubting its prodding nature, its jabbing intimacy, the compressed jewel of air between each of her lips and his cheek.
It was yet another dimension to this place, one that the green knight had hinted at with his game. The gifts, while at times exciting, were prickly. The edge of the ax haunted him every moment. The stag at his feet, even without the silvery sheen of the tale, was sharp in a dozen places, and now there was this kiss, painful in a way that felt strange to complain about. The sensation itched more and more, but he couldn’t take his lips away until the full kiss was given. Bertylak was thankfully silent the entire time, oozing appreciation nonetheless.
The knight took a deep breath as soon as it was over, feeling the throbbing blush in his cheeks. He was more out of breath than Bertylak had been at any time during his hunt.
“Sir Gawain,” he purred, hand approaching the placement of the kiss but never actually touching. Apparently he didn’t want to smudge it. “What a thing to get on this, your first full day with us. I can’t imagine what wonders you’ll bring me next.”
“Tell me, who was it that gave such a fine thing to you? I’m burning to know.” It was the exact question Gawain had hoped not to hear. With no idea how to answer, especially now that he was distracted by the prospect of the further wonders he was to provide, he shuffled his feet and hung his head.
“There’s no need to say,” he eventually settled on as a tactic. “For I was not introduced to the provider today, but yesterday, and we had not yet struck our bargain. The information is not truly mine to give.”
“I see. All the more interesting then. I have a mysterious benefactor, which is thrilling, for I know this castle inside and out. Any unknowns are welcome. It’s like there’s a mysterious person walking the halls, leaving advice and presents, but never taking our food or dry towels. They are a visitation!” Thankfully he said no more of the kiss, and turned to leave without touching the knight. He was halfway back into the crevice when Gawain blurted something, to his own surprise.
“A woman!” Bertylak cocked his head. “The kiss came from a woman, in case you… were worried that…”
“My dear friend!” His face opened in a smile, lips splitting almost audibly like a seedpod full to bursting. “They all feel the same to me.”
That night Sir Gawain, while never mentioned by name, was not afforded the same anonymity as previously. Once again Bertylak presided over their meal, but he made very clear that the main course was courtesy of the young man seated there. Without him none of them would have had the venison medallions, the beautiful stock in the soup, or the pan fried offal dusted with bright green herbs.
He couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride, but when Bertylak spun his throne away the knight’s eyes turned to the others present. There would be a good deal of the meat left over for smoking and drying, as the ring table was not as full as the prior night. This fact was somewhat obfuscated by the changing shape of the outer table; the wood had reformed with fewer chairs, increasing the space between each, so every seat was still occupied.
When he consulted his memories he concluded no less than four other guests were missing. He hadn’t paid enough attention to recall their faces, but the two that he distinctly remembered were still there: the woman with the jutting collarbone and Sand. The former was looking healthier, eyes almost placid.
Sand was much the same as before, even seated next to him a second time. Gawain couldn’t help but notice that his plate, while full, did not contain any of the venison. This was all a game, and none of it even his, yet the knight felt insulted all the same. Confident as he was that any fighting at the dinner table could get them sucked into the center of the ring and pulped into fertilizer, his only avenue of attack was rhetorical.
“You know,” he said between bites of the stag’s breaded heart, “I have seen the content of your character.” Sand lowered his utensils but didn’t yet glance over.
“Are you speaking to me Sir Bog?”
“Are you judging the way I chew or sip my soup? We haven’t seen each other since our last meal together.”
“Magical as this place is, I’m not without my own access to sorcery,” Gawain boasted. “It has shown me what kind of spirit lurks in that desert-dwelling body of yours. I was surprised to see so much water. I wonder if that pond was just the contents of your dreams? Your people must lust after it so.” Sand said nothing, so he continued. “Yes you are dark and still on the inside, like the bottom of a well.” The last word struck the man, so much so that he dropped his fork with a clatter. Gawain was startled as well, as if his opponent had dropped his sword before the duel had properly started.
“How is it that you know this?” His eyes were dark and sharp, like a cat’s claws peeking out from the folds of the paw.
“It is one of Merlyn’s famous sorceries,” he lied. “A secret belonging to the round table, not this leaky ring.”
“Have you turned this trick upon the green knight? Seen what resides in his spirit?”
“No,” he admitted, crestfallen. Sand was frustrated by this, which made Gawain feel small and weak. Already his rival had moved past the posturing between kingdoms and turned his attention to another goal. Arthyr’s nephew was being but a child, distracting himself with playful biting and teasing.
“Perhaps you should focus your efforts on the one person here who matters,” Sand snapped. It wasn’t long before he had his chance, as Bertylak bid them goodnight and left before dessert, with his master to again preside over the sweetest part of the evening. Gawain was sure to finish all the meat on his plate as the fiend arrived; the ring table would not be allowed to partake in the meal he provided.
Despite his focus on it, the food did at some point disappear to be replaced by bowls of warm bread pudding with rare spices. The rich scent of vanilla and cinnamon kept them calm, even as the giant man’s feet slapped on the table and he tossed himself into the throne. Once again everyone with a grievance was afforded a turn under his gaze, and the table twisted each time. Gawain was careful to pay attention when Sand cleared his throat.
“My host,” he addressed the green knight once he had his attention, “I notice we are not as many as before. I didn’t think it was customary for this Yule celebration to shrink as its central day grew closer.” Their host leaned in.
“You know,” he whispered, “I miss them too. It is a shame they had to go so soon… but you are right!” He clapped his hands, like two beaver tails slapping. “We should honor their time here even though it is finished.” His feet rumbled back and forth, disturbing all the spoons, forcing them deeper into the pudding. The table’s wood flowed once more, shrinking the space between seats. The missing four reappeared.
Gawain thought perhaps he would mold wooden statues of the missing, but the only thing that rose from the center of each seat was a single large flower. Each was different, but he recognized one as a lily despite its absurd size. His bread pudding turned into a dry lump in his throat. These were flowers of mourning across various cultures, draped over graves.
The Green Knight said nothing else on the matter. He was turning away when he spied Gawain, and the fellow couldn’t resist giving him a tap on the head. The young man looked up.
“Not a chirp out of you tonight, hmm? Does nothing trouble you? You need only speak up if something does.” His breath was like cedar. The pores on his cheeks were deep, dark, and pristine, like a child poking their little finger into the earth to plant seeds.
“The old woman escorted by Lady Hautdesert,” he managed to ask, “who is she?”
“One of my guests.”
“What is her name?”
“I’m really not sure,” the fellow crooned. “You know I’ve never bothered with a name myself, and they often escape me when I’m sure I’ve got a grasp on them. That lovely woman over there,” he pointed to a seated white flower, “has no name to me other than Lily.” Too late Gawain realized he should’ve prepared more questions. With a single moment of silence between them, someone else asked theirs.
It was the woman with the jutting collarbone, though its was jutting less that night, so Gawain finally gave her a name: Bonnet. The flower she sat next to was rather shaped like one, and he found it notable that she wasn’t concerned by her proximity to it. As far as he was concerned it was like sitting next to a ghost, as the green knight had surely claimed their head or life in some fashion.
She said that she hated to trouble her host, but that an item of jewelry had gone missing from her room, and she very much wanted it returned. Some of the other guests chimed in with similar complaints. Their host assured them that he was aware of the problem, that it was the work of a mischievous thief in the woods, and that Bertylak would solve the issue with the next day’s hunt. Gawain choked on his pudding for what felt like the tenth time. If Bertylak found these treasures they would find their way into the young knight’s pockets by sundown.
The next morning stood in stark contrast to the previous one. Gawain awoke refreshed and early. Not even the proliferation of the snails, which grew more comfortable with his presence with every hour, could fluster him.
He rose and used the water jug to clear their slime trails from his chest and hair before dressing. There was only this day left and another before his fateful game, and there was no time left for uncertainty. Even in his dreams the plan was repeated, various knights of the round table reminding him of each step.
First he would accompany Bertylak on his hunt, an act which would achieve several different things. More he would learn of Bertylak’s character, and if he was a friend that could be trusted even if it meant going against his lord. There would be opportunity to fell a bird or beast and use it as his gift, avoiding having to hand over the thorny kisses of the man’s own wife. Lastly they would defeat this thief, and with any luck find something from its hoard that could be kept and used to save his life.
With no time to relax in the evening, he would again use the ogre’s eye to examine the other guests. His hope was to find one in the middle of their game, and to see exactly what the green knight did before replacing them with flowers at the dinner table.
The ax was far too large to wield against game and fowl, so he had no weapon to take with him, only the hope that Bertylak would lend him a bow or a pike for fishing. The young lady attending to his room had helpfully caught wind of his intentions, leaving him much hardier clothing and even a pair of riding gloves.
For a moment he was given pause, as the Green Chapel seemed almost too eager to assist him. There was again a trail of flowers along the wall outside the door, and upon following it took him outside. That part of the grounds beyond the wall, and the trees tying it up tightly like a boiling hen, couldn’t quite be called a clearing. The trees definitely had more space, and the underbrush was shallower, but all that extra room may have just been the result of the babbling stream running through rather than any cultivation from the overstayed.
He spied a figure at the water’s edge: a man brushing the flank of his horse. He was humming and snickering to himself, and the voice could only be Bertylak’s. Gawain raised his hand, about to call out to him, when he spoke.
“Aren’t you ready yet?” A spray of water shot out from the stream somewhere to the right. For Gawain it was blocked by a tree, so he leaned his head and saw a pile of large round rocks with water cascading over them. The source of the spray rose out from under the flow, sitting up and stretching his naked arms. Gawain wrapped behind the tree and put his back to it.
His face was obscured by dripping, but there was no mistaking such a body. The green knight was bathing in the stream, and Gawain was too afraid to look and see the extent of his nakedness. Instead he just listened as the giant shook off the chill and waded over to his steward.
“There’s plenty of time and no need to hurry,” he playfully scolded Bertylak. “The day these woods are empty of animals is a day when I’m long gone already.”
“I have a promise to keep and I won’t have your dawdling mucking it up.”
“You’ve taken an interest in Arthyr’s nephew,” the green fellow noted. “You’re certainly going beyond my requests with him. Do you actually care what he thinks of you?”
“My lord I care what everyone thinks of me. A man has no soul beyond his reputation. What he hears of himself from others is an echo. Imagine the horror one might feel upon hearing an echo of his words, but in another’s voice.”
“I hear such things with copious regularity and it troubles me none.” A quiet moment. The green knight took a breath so deep that Gawain could hear it. The sound turned his chest into a cavernous hollow full of fluttering moths. “Wasn’t Sir Gawain to join us?”
“That was his intention,” Bertylak said. Gawain tucked his fingers under his knuckles to make sure they couldn’t be seen around the trunk. He felt their eyes piercing bark twice and wood once, hoping to see him come strolling out from the bushes. “It is fine if he has changed his mind though; it means my gift gets to be a surprise once more.”
“Did he have anything to offer you last night?”
“Yes, a kiss.”
“A kiss?” the green fellow repeated, baffled, almost offended. Even with them unaware of his presence Gawain felt his face redden. Many marriages, and twice as many intimate acts, had been resisted in the last year; it was a challenge second only to suppressing his fear. Perfectly he kept the knightly virtue of chastity, only to be gossiped about by these two, and with the single kiss in their discussion being between him and another man.
“A delightful kiss,” Bertylak elaborated. “No half effort. It was like I was being read a tale and he even paused to make sure the appropriate punctuation came through.” He chuckled. “What? Are you disturbed?” Gawain could not turn to see the green knight’s expression, but the next words from his emerald palate contained undeniable emotion, the most earnest he’d heard from the fellow.
“I’m simply stunned. There was a kiss in these halls and I wasn’t party to it. You know I’ve felt the lips of nearly every man and woman who has come through here. It’s just a natural part of learning who they are. I would never dream of taking a head without knowing what was inside it. Can’t be surprised by the contents issued forth from the neck.”
“It’s even more stunning than that!” Bertylak said, enjoying his lord’s distress. “For it was a kiss recreated, which means there were two in which you did not participate. You don’t always have to force affection between people you know. They can stumble into it themselves.”
“Perhaps that’s what happened,” the green fellow said, almost pouting. He splashed his way to the far side of the stream, raising his voice when he was at the edge of the wood. “Sir Gawain stumbled, directly into you, and in his embarrassment he had to claim he was delivering a kiss.”
“You wish it was such,” Bertylak retorted, mounting his horse and riding across the water as well. “Shall I give you a head start?”
“No need,” the green knight answered as their voices faded behind the trees. “Who was it do you think that created that first kiss?”
“Your guess is better than mine.” That was the last the young knight heard, and he was glad for it. If they had speculated any more his pride would’ve forced him out from behind that tree. They would know it was created by Lady Hautdesert and that he was deserving of it and he could’ve done all the things a man is expected to when the situation is right if only the situation was right.
“She’s a beautiful woman,” he whispered. “It was only my enthusiasm for her, the rush of her presence, that caused that kiss. It wasn’t made for him. I would never make one of those for him, no matter how good a friend.” Similar sentiments rushed through his head, almost as quickly as the uncomfortable heat in his blood, as he hurried back to his quarters.
While he dug out the ogre’s eye he thought about how a kiss like that, from one man onto the cheek of another, was never even valid no matter how well performed. There was always at least one beard hair getting in the way, preventing their skin from even touching. It was rather like politely wiping some dust from another man’s cape.
Joining the green knight on a hunt never crossed his mind. He was the enemy. The man-shaped thing that mocked him, that prodded until he gave up his own life in defense of his decency. The entire stay at the chapel was just one long joke at his expense, all the other guests laughing as he tried to scoop his spilled guts back inside.
The eye could do the work; with it properly focused he could follow the hunt without being there. Gone was the opportunity to claim a prize for Bertylak, but he would still have buckets of knowledge to sift through. He kept the riding gloves on as he sat on the edge of his bed and stroked the eye, adjusting until the right target and pressure was found.
He could’ve found Bertylak sooner, but he wasted some of his time searching once more for the green knight. He knew the fellow was right there with Bertylak, hunting by his side, yet the eye acted as if he didn’t exist. He guessed, along with a curse under his breath, that it was all the fault of the Cyclipse. The beast knew what flesh it liked the taste of best, and it was the flesh of man and his sheep. It had likely never flayed flank of fey, and so its eye was never cast the way of its kin.
The eye was dyed red and purple as he helped it settle onto Bertylak. The blur within became his shoulders, bouncing back and forth as he rode his horse deeper into the wood. Bow and quiver were on his back again. Gawain squinted and hunched closer to its surface, but something was wrong. His friend grew more distant within the eye, the magic vision failing to penetrate even a single leaf.
“Follow him!” he hissed, but the eye was unconvinced. “I’ll split you with that ax if you don’t-” Gawain hopped up in his frustration and noticed when the angle of the vision elevated by a similar amount. “Yet more guidance is needed!? When this is over you will become a coal in Camylot’s fireplace you lazy eye!”
He exited his bedroom once more and swung the eye back and forth. It was exactly as it seemed. Each step in the castle was an equivalent distance for the vision, and if he wanted to keep up with anyone on the move he would have to copy their heading as closely as possible. His arm was bent by a wall almost immediately, and no degree of head craning could keep Bertylak from trotting out of sight.
“Damn.” He brushed some of the moss from the wall, hoping to see a hidden door, but there was only a darker and wetter layer attended to by pewter millipedes. The knight ran to the end of the hall, found a door, and was glad to find it unlocked. The room was unused, little more than a spinning wheel and a bucket full of a coiled lump of something silky. He tripped over it as he bumbled around the corners, holding the eye up in each to see if Bertylak was visible. He was, but only the tail of his horse and only briefly.
Keeping this up would be impossible, especially if he ran into any of the guests or the overstayed. In a snap of inspiration he realized that elevation wouldn’t hurt, as long as he didn’t go so high that he put the vision into the midst of the canopy. The castle had stairs and ramparts, and with any luck the walkways atop them would be open to the sky and have no walls to inhibit his spying.
The layout was still mostly a mystery to him, so the direction he picked back in the hallway was based on the last swish of Bertylak’s steed’s tail. Each dead end that he found cost him precious seconds, and he even found one of them twice thanks to the moss blurring all the walls into one. When he finally found stairs they were far from welcoming, bearing a stronger resemblance to the small waterfall he’d just seen the green fellow bathing in. The smell of the flow, clean and cool, as it flowed over the weathered stone steps convinced him it was fed by that exact stream.
A few empty buckets at the base indicated that those stairs could have been the source of the castle’s water, which meant he’d been washing his face and drinking deeply of the green knight’s bathwater. There was no time to be disgusted, for there was a flash of movement in the eye. Whether those stairs were even meant to be climbed or not, he had to make an attempt.
Splashing his way up, his boots were flooded and his feet freezing in moments. These lands were free of winter, but the streams must have been fed from the lands beyond, impregnated with every blizzard that couldn’t otherwise enter. He slipped, smashing his cheek against the stone, the bruise made all the deeper because his right hand was too occupied to bear any of his weight.
It held the eye aloft, and even as the babbling water obscured one side of his face he saw something in it. A creature, slinking up a hill similar in incline to the stairs. Its body was low, yet its slender limbs managed to pull it forward.
“Rynard,” Gawain sputtered. It had to be the trickster, for while he knew what he saw was a fox, he also knew it was no sort of fox he’d seen before. Easily the size of a man, its jaws, currently closed in a sly smirk, would make easy work of any unarmored limb. At the moment the fur on its tail was unnaturally compressed, down to the smoothness of a rat’s, but he sensed that when the creature was relaxed it would be bushier than the softest paintbrush, and perhaps voluminous enough for children to disappear in. And, of course, its familiar rich red was nowhere to be found, completely replaced by a coat of green that made it disappear against the moss.
Rynard was the thief too, for no fox ever received such wonderful gifts as what it carried upon its back. A tablecloth was knotted around its neck, and bulging out of its swell, kept balanced on its tall shoulder blades, was an assortment of valuables: bronze candlesticks, pewter dishes, an hourglass full of indigo sand…
Not only that, but thievery was so embedded in the creature’s life that its prizes were almost part of its body. Rynard’s ankles were coated in varied cut gemstones, stuck fast like barnacles against a submerged post. He spied rubies a plenty, broken up by the occasional half-pearl. Gawain looked closer, and sparkling in the monster’s whiskers was the dust of diamonds, perhaps from rooting around in buried treasure chests.
“I should be hunting you,” he growled, but the creature was far beyond the chapel’s walls, its attention turned somewhere ahead of it. Gawain wanted to know what it plotted to steal next, so he turned the eye toward the top of the stairs and saw what it saw. Bertylak’s back. Exposed neck. The fox crept forward. The young knight scrambled up the rest of the way, clothes thoroughly soaked. He nearly lost his footing twice more, spraying water all the way to the bottom, even into one of the empty buckets, but he managed to avoid any more bruises.
At the top he found edges, lost in continental borders of lichen forest and swamp, but the edges of a door nonetheless. They were stairs after all. He grabbed an overgrown lump that probably had a knob at its center and yanked. Wooden splinters and globs of sparkling mud came with it, but it flew open. Gawain stumbled out, but he lost sight of the hunted hunter when he squinted. The sunlight was momentarily overwhelming, its heat plastering his shirt to his chest.
The situation within the eye was so dire that he barely noticed both that he had deduced the state of the roof and reached it successfully. The chapel’s towers still rose far above, but there was at least one square of path connecting them all on that level. A few trees rose from beyond the walls, curled like inchworms over his head, and tangled themselves in with the canopy over the courtyard.
Resigned to being directionless within the castle, Gawain was confused by the mere notion of recognizing the courtyard. He stuck his head over the side, wet hair dripping on anyone unfortunate enough to be directly below. The eye peeked over next, and in it he saw a distant ground, a horse’s back divided by its rider, and the wriggling green shadow behind it.
“You hunt with your steward and then leave him to die? What a lord you are,” the young knight growled. Spinning the eye didn’t prove him wrong. No matter what tilt or angle, the green knight wasn’t there. Perhaps they’d split up in order to hunt the thief, another competition, but if so Bertylak would lose more than his pride.
Stalking Rynard took its time, so Bertylak rode far enough away that Gawain was forced to move. He ran along the ramparts, but the angles conflicted. His friend was riding out into the equivalent of the courtyard. The land out there looked deeper and wetter, like a gully: the perfect place for a body to rot.
His eyes turned to Rynard. The creature shook its shoulders with almost magical precision, causing a curved dagger to tumble out of the sack on its back. The beast caught in its mouth, and its bite on the hilt had to be silent, for Bertylak didn’t turn. It crept closer. What villainous envy, that which caused a monster to take such a tool. It knew that nature had never molded such a fine implement for slitting a throat. The clumsy wolf teeth forced upon the fox could only crush the windpipe, but the silky steel of man could match the elegance of Rynard’s delicate steps.
The weapon’s curve reminded him of Sand; the people of the deserts often used such curved blades. Perhaps it was taken from him. There would be no telling whether the man had kept it sharpened, not if he didn’t follow them into the courtyard. Gawain grabbed the nearest bent tree and threw himself over it as if mounting Gringolet. He inched forward until he was able to slide down into the woven trees, where the branches caught him and made weak promises to keep him there.
The move lowered him some, and in the eye he was close enough to see the dust sparkling in the green fox’s whiskers. The beast was so close now, each paw in the hoof print created a step ago, but they descended deeper into the gully. Gawain stretched his arm as far as he could, but his fingers protested by dropping the warm glassy orb.
He caught it with his other hand, but only by wrapping his legs around a branch and spinning upside down, the violence of which disturbed all the trees tied into the lattice. Leaves fell in the surrounding area.
“Sir Gawain, is that you?” He couldn’t look down without all the blood rushing to his upper eyelids, but he didn’t need to. Even if that voice had only said a single word to him, even a rude one, he would never have forgotten it. Lady Hautdesert. The foolish knight might have disturbed her reading yet again.
“I-I’m sorry, but yes,” he sputtered. Swiftly he righted himself and held the eye close to his chest, scurrying away from her and into a denser stronger part of the lattice, closer to a reassuring trunk. Not free enough to look into the fey crystal, Gawain could only imagine how close the fox was. His mind’s eye, the least helpful of the multitudinous eyes within that damned chapel, pictured Rynard swiping at the horse’s tail with the dagger, playfully cutting off more and more hair with steed and rider unaware.
“What are you doing up there?” the lady asked.
“Oh… taking a stroll of sorts,” he squeaked. A moment later he had his back to a trunk and his legs beneath him, a stable enough position to examine the eye without the lady seeing. It was just the bottom of the gully at first, but then something wet and red flashed. A snap of teeth. Rynard had taken a bite, but of what? And where had the dagger gone? He hopped to the next branch, and the next, swinging his free arm in giant circles to keep his balance. All he could catch were tufts of tail and thrashes of hoof.
“Are you stuck up there?” she asked from below. “Our greenery can be on the insistent side, but I’ve never known that pattern to catch a guest like a netted fish.”
“That’s not it,” he shouted down. “I was just distressed, for I missed my chance to hunt with your- Bertylak!” The man’s face went by in the eye, so he chased it right out of the tree. There were no branches left in front of him, and it was only instinct that made him jump at the last possible moment. His sternum slammed into another limb, knocking his breath out. Armpits and chin kept him wrapped around it, and he nearly choked himself against it looking into the magical marble.
“Do keep hold!” she encouraged him. After that he heard something like a squirrel scurrying up.
“What are you doing?”
“Assisting you! It will be my responsibility if you fall and crack your head.” It was a great strain to wrap his head around the top of the branch and look down to confirm his fears; Lady Hautdesert was climbing the tree with startling speed. Clearly she had experience with such ascents, a rock climbing and pond diving past expertly hidden by her dignified demeanor and pristine skin.
Without being able to place the fear exactly, Gawain knew he didn’t want to reveal either the eye or its contents to her. One implied that he was not enjoying his time under their hospitality and the other expressed a disbelief that Bertylak could handle himself on a hunt. Both were insults, and he would sooner chew up a live clam, shell and all, than insult the lady.
Only the fall of a leaf before she was upon him, Gawain heaved himself up and crawled to the trunk of the newest tree on his journey across two lands. In the eye a horse fled. He crouched down and twisted it. Rynard was atop Bertylak, both pressing into the mud and fleshy undergrowth. It snarled and bared its glittering teeth, tongue and throat so red it was as if the trickster had already gorged on his blood.
The steward fought back valiantly with both hands wrapped around the monster’s neck. Gawain was entranced, whispering his cheers for his host, but he was being pursued as well. The lady was nearly there, so he wrapped around the trunk, picking a branch only large enough to support one.
“Where did you go?” she asked when she was stood on the side he occupied moments before. Her breath wasn’t even heavy, as if nothing he could do could ever tire her.
“I’m alright,” he panted. “I’d rather you didn’t see me so red in the face. I assure you everything is… I’m quite fine.”
“If you insist… but I was hoping to see you again today.”
“You were?” He had more questions, but they collapsed like a pile of sand when he saw Rynard grab her husband’s neck. He couldn’t scream. Couldn’t gasp. Couldn’t squeeze without shooting fire through his own heart.
“I thought you might need some more inspiration for your gift to my husband.” Somehow the passages in his chest constricted even more. “There are other things he enjoys greatly… and you’ll need every detail if you’re to get them right.”
“While I am infinitely grateful for your assistance,” he started, words incredibly coherent considering what he watched at that very moment, “I mustn’t accept it any longer. These are the last days on my feet, and my acts must be upright as proof that I deserved every step. Bertylak will love his gift, and I will work for it.”
Man and beast rolled away from the eye, and Gawain pursued as far as he could, shuffling along the branch until it bobbed and creaked in protest. Bertylak was on top now. His palm was flat against the fox’s lip, a dangerous position indeed given the snarling shimmer of its teeth just a finger away. He needed the free hand for the dagger he’d taken from it. Down it came, thrust deep into the verdant fur of its nape. Bertylak dragged it along the spine, drawing out pools of deep crimson that flooded through the green tufts like fire through trees. Its stolen goods clattered to the forest floor.
When Rynard’s eye stilled Gawain loosened his grip, causing the ogre’s eye to do the same. Its distant vision faded into fog and then into nothing.
“You didn’t say how your stroll got you suspended up here,” Lady Hautdesert mentioned. She was appropriately quiet as not to startle him when he realized she had circled around and snuck up behind, but he lost his footing anyway and fell. The fountain below was thankfully quite deep, and its water as cold as that flowing over the stairs.
While he was submerged he tucked the eye into his clothes. Curious, and still feeling a heat, Lady Hautdesert its source, deep under his muscles that the water couldn’t extinguish, he dove deeper. The bottom of the well was a dark green carpet, but not of the slimy tendrils one expects of water plants. It was only more moss, and he saw in it many sets of bumps, five each time, about the size of an egg.
They were the toes at the end of footprints, raised instead of sunken. Green feet fertilizing everything they walked upon, even if it was bare rock. This was where the green lady bathed, and she must have enjoyed, through yet more fey trickery, walking around on the bottom as if it were ordinary earth.
He pressed his hand into one, shuddering at the sensation. Softer than he thought. Impossibly dry. The water didn’t trouble it because there was some magic separating them. This was the water of the winter beyond those lands, and it was only allowed to pass through. If only he could be the same way. If only he had the strength to brush the Green Chapel aside like a branch as he rode. Air was short.
When he rolled over the fountain’s lip he was already nearly dry, but he laid there regardless, letting what little sun that came through the canopy finish the task. Lady Hautdesert was perched between them, dainty feet dangling down like an angel watching from a cloud. She laughed at him. There were statements in there as well, drizzling down from her smile, but all he could hear was the laughter.
Much of his day was spent in a daze after that. Sir Gawain returned to his room with no more advantages for his confrontation with the green knight than he had that morning. He couldn’t stand any company, not even the snails, so he gathered the creatures up, all that he could find, including leaping to pluck them from the ceiling, and locked them up in the cupboard that usually held the water pitcher.
They had no sounds within them to protest, and the furniture never so much as shuddered. He knew that the moment he took his eyes off it the wood would grow a hole and release them. His bedroom was a habitat, and he was treated as no more special than any of its other inhabitants. The life of every guest had to go on, until it didn’t. Then they were just detritus for the next layer of moss, the next funerary flower, or for the next snail to lick off the ground. Gawain saw himself as nothing but a band of color in one of their spiraling shells, a stripe of free-giving amethyst disappearing down its center rather than holding up its point of the pentangle.
On the edge of the bed he sat, time warping. The tittering and warbling of the birds outside changed, and he wasn’t sure if it was just the addition of stranger birds or if disturbingly vocal insects had taken their place. Tunk tunk. There was no mistaking that, unless the snails had figured out how to punch the walls of their wooden prison with their granite shells. Someone was at the door.
“Hello? Who is there?” he asked, bolting up and drying his sweaty hands on his clothes. Tunk tunk. It wasn’t louder or faster, just the same knock again. Whoever they were, without saying a word they already had the young knight second guessing himself. He had failed to answer it, so they reiterated. His end of common decency was not being upheld.
When he pulled it open it appeared that the hallway was gone, completely replaced by another view full of greenery. The castle certainly seemed capable of redecorating itself, of growing such a fresh curtain in a matter of hours or minutes, but not of such refined sensual motion. The vines ducked under the arch and entered. Gawain stumbled back, not sure which of the lapis lazuli flowers peeking out were the entity’s eyes.
It turned out to be none of them as a pair of green hands emerged, clutching the vines and pulling them apart. They were pushed back, over a pair of shoulders. Gawain’s heart thundered as his eyes shot up, as if propelled by geyser. Just as with her husband, it was difficult to tell where her clothing ended and her flesh began. She could’ve been bundled up, lightly dressed in bedclothes, or stark naked. Nothing intimate showed, but he wasn’t quite sure if that was true. Would a woman as green as she normally reveal her flowers to a strange man? Were the seedpods of her ears jewelry or the property of her husband?
“My lady,” Gawain choked, trying to bow even though he’d already sat back on the bed’s edge. With nothing else to say he just let his head hang until she spoke. Her feet were bare, and a match in size for the prints he’d seen at the bottom of the fountain. She must have stood nearly as tall as the green fellow, her bushy hair canopy capable of brushing the bed’s. She could’ve swallowed the ogre’s eye like a simple confection.
“I didn’t say it was I from behind the door,” she explained coolly, “because you don’t yet know me. We haven’t been introduced.” Her voice had the same deep resonance as her husband’s, but he found it infinitely more appealing. Each word was like a night wind claiming a raindrop, carrying it deep into a cavern, and depositing it in a black pool that had been silent for an age. Where the green knight’s aura, empowered by his words, made all the plants about him grow wildly, Gawain saw nothing of this in the little ferns about her feet. He sensed the same power though, quickly realizing that her presence sent the roots further down rather than the shoots further up.
“No, but I know of you,” Gawain said without raising his head. “You are the lady of the castle. Wife to the green knight.”
“And you are Sir Gawain, come to play a foolish game.”
“Only the challenge brought by your husband.”
“Yes, the king of fools himself.” She touched under his chin with a soft finger, lifting his eyes to hers. Yet again he was devastated by beauty, but not like Gwenyvyr or Lady Hautdesert. The former was regal and the latter mischievous. The woman before him was… experienced. In her eyes, brown as the draught Merlyn drank from a clay bottle, which he called an elixir of life, he saw dissolved time. It didn’t sparkle, instead spreading like drops of oil into water. They looked as if he could fall into them, calm like Lossys but with a confidence that place lacked.
She took full advantage of his speechlessness by raising one leg and pushing his chest with her foot. With no effort at all she slid him across the blankets and onto the pillows. The gown that may have been part of her slipped off her thigh, revealing smooth green skin across the muscular feminine limb, like a rolling grassy hill with a slithering layer of midnight fog. The green lady crawled onto the bed with him and brushed the back of her hand along one of the posts.
The bed responded by dropping bunched layers of its canopy; they came down as veiled curtains of greenery. Then she sat with her legs under her, staring at him. Part of her garment slid off her shoulders, but instead of falling to the bed it curled up as bands around her arms and under her breasts. Her shoulders were bare now; they had to be. Losing anymore would expose her muscle to the air. It might have been his imagination, but the blue flowers in her hair opened wider.
“Why are you here?” he asked, almost desperate enough to pull open the snail cabinet and gulp down the water pitcher inside, no matter how much of it had become their slime. Aside from his flaking throat his heart felt soft and floppy, worn out by its own exertions. All he had done that day was climb some stairs and fall from a tree, yet he ached more than any battle across the last year.
“I’m here to free prisoners,” she said cryptically, her stare intensifying.
“I don’t know that I am one. I owe your husband a stroke with an ax, but none have dropped the weapon in front of me to stop my exit. I… I could leave… but that’s not the sort of man I am.” The green lady raised her hand as if about to strike him. He winced, but she only lifted one of the curtains to her side. The cabinet he’d trapped the snails in grew up to her with the same sounds of wood flowing about the ring table. She drew a circle on its door with her fingertip.
The wood opened to match the shape and the snails crawled out and across its surfaces. She pushed it back and let the curtain drop, which occurred right when Gawain realized his foolishness. The snails were the prisoners to which she referred. They were guests like any other, and had a way to call for the assistance of their host.
“Don’t torment the creatures here,” she chided him. “I very much doubt they’ve done anything to deserve it.”
“I apologize, my lady. My… frustrations have gotten the better of me.”
“I take it that means you haven’t found a way to win the game?” He had only a nod as answer. “My husband, much as I despise him, is not the brute he pretends to be. He places nooses around necks, but never tightens them.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you have done this to yourself, and there is no one else to blame.”
“I have said nothing blaming him,” Gawain insisted. “I will keep my promise.” He was eager to change the subject. “If these games are not why you detest him, then why do you?”
“He enjoys them too much,” she said, pulling herself closer. Gawain was forced to lift and spread his legs to make room for her. The pillows behind him were soft, but they couldn’t compress against the wall any further. “He likes watching people die to their mistakes. He goads them into slipping in puddles of their own blood. The way he laughs when it’s happening makes me ill.” In the silence Gawain heard an echo of that booming laugh, the laugh he sprayed all over the walls of Camylot: Auhauhauhauhauhauhauhauh!
“If it wasn’t love, why did you bind yourself to him?”
“Everyone knows that a marriage has its… political benefits.”
“Do they have politics in Anwynn?
“Not even the ants escape such things,” the green lady said. “If they have a queen for their empire of dirt grains, why wouldn’t the beasts and folk of fey have them? I wanted to see the world of men, to experience them, and the only way to do so was to have an escort better connected to those in power.” She crawled closer, looming over him like a leaning tree. Her tendrils of hair dragged across his waist.
“Still you must have taken your vows to him seriously! He’s fond of cutting heads, and an unfaithful wife is unlikely to keep her neck.” Too late he remembered that beheading had done little to interfere with her husband’s business, requiring only the acquisition of a new face, however such a thing was accomplished.
“Tell me Sir Gawain, do you find me beautiful?” Her pupils seemed to grow even more, leaving very little white in her eyes.
“You have freed your prisoners, but now you are making one of me!” he yelped, but he couldn’t wriggle out from under her without laying hands on her. He very much wished he had one of those snail shells to retreat to and get those hungry woman eyes off his soul.
“Is that how you feel?” she asked, retreating enough for him to at least breathe. “I thought perhaps we could take pleasure in each other’s company. My husband is going to take your life, so I sought to enrich it before that. Anything that makes you a little less fearful takes some of his cruel joy away. If this body cannot please you…” She turned to leave, the curtains raising to make way.
“I certainly don’t mean to offend!” Gawain insisted, throwing up his hand. He would have pursued her further than that, but he couldn’t move, not without revealing his physical condition and embarrassing himself beyond measure. His feeble attempt to conceal it, a swift grab of one of the smaller pillows which he then placed in his lap, was already obvious to her. The curtain came back down, sealing them together once again.
“Are you ashamed, to find a creature like me drawing the same response as your courtly women, as your queen perhaps?” She smiled. She knew she was the queen of the realm at that moment, even if it only extended from the head of the bed to the foot.
“No. I am humbled by your kindness. While I recognize the dire situation I’m in, I am unable to discard noble vows of my own. Every virtue of the round table must be upheld, to the final day and the final moment. Among those virtues is chastity. I have never-”
“-been with a woman?” she finished.
“I have been with many, but always in other capacities! I’ve respected them, protected them, and listened! There are many men who ignore the latter, but I’ve always listened. Women have a wisdom. I won’t cheapen it with premature carnal acts. I will marry a wonderful woman, I will hear her whispered wisdom, saved for me, and then I will be-”
“-dead. There is no wife for you here, and you won’t be leaving. Everything you’ve just said is meaningless. Every glimmer of meaningful intent you have for women is under that pillow right now… and it’s entirely for me.” He squirmed as his face reddened. She came closer than before. Her hair snaked up his chest, growing like ivy over a stone wall. Though the stone always looked stronger at first, though the ivy would die and reclaim with the seasons, eventually the wall would crack and the plant would take up residence in the crumbling remains. It was more fragile, but stronger in the end.
“I cannot be with you, my lady. Too much of the king is in me. To disappoint him would be to lose everything.”
“There is no cause for concern. Your vow was to keep chaste with courtly women. It did not include any being like me, for few men of the world know such a thing as me exists.”
“Such reasoning is a cheat.”
“Are you rigid to no end!?” she asked, showing her first sign of frustration. Some of her hair was inside his shirt now, having slithered down his collar. He felt it press against his pounding heartbeat. “I say that I do not fit inside your vows. They will do nothing for you here, but I will. I will bring you joy; I will help you both forget what awaits and shore up your spirit for the swing.”
“I cannot.” Tears prickled in his eyes. Why couldn’t he? As a fey creature she was right, she was not counted among the noble women he was expected to eventually woo. It would be a sweet revenge as well, having taken to bed the wife of his killer. He would be gone, but she might later taunt him over it: Gawain having bested him in a way that stretched beyond the grave.
“Promises like yours are all promises to die,” she said, sighing in exasperation, her breath an earthy mix of blueberries and rain. The scent made him feel small, like he was but a child crawling through bushes in search of the plumpest fruit. “You are promising not to change, not to grow or learn or let your feelings move you.”
“Feelings do not overpower honor. As you say, one is temporary and the other is eternal. After I die I will still have my honor. It will be the key to the gates of heaven, and there I will sit with Arthyr’s other fallen and risen knights before the beaming heart of the one lord.”
“The one lord?” Had her eyes darkened? Were they black now, or was it such a deep brown that it was like soil a country below the grass. “None make meaningless promises like anything that calls itself the one lord.” Her expression suggested she could rattle off the names of a hundred gods without consulting a single book, but she said nothing more on the subject. Instead she pulled away. All the curtains about them lifted at once. Every snail, they were now spread evenly across the walls and furniture, stared at them with eye stalks stretched to their maximum.
“I am sorry to disappoint you m-my lady,” the young knight said, his voice cracking. “There is something I w-will accept.” The woman quickly puzzled out his meaning and offered a smirk.
“I know of your game with Bertylak. Do you need something to give him tonight? Something more than a single kiss?” He nodded. “Very well. Here. Take twice that value, but know that it is actually, truly, for you. You are a man Sir Gawain, buried and hidden under the promise to be one.”
The green lady approached a final time and pressed her lips, giant and soft, against his cheek. A tremble ran through his spine and he lost all sensation in his fingers, but he knew it was not magic. Just a thrill. Just what he had denied himself. How incredible were women, even the fey ones, to have such thrills stored inside them at all times, to be imparted by a press of the lips or a brush of the hand?
He wasn’t done reveling in it when her head glided to the other cheek and kissed it as well. Her hair covered his face, and through her locks and flowers he caught glimpses of those deep dark eyes like wells to plant wishes in. Desire flooded him, not just for her, but for all the women who had ever offered their time and warmth. He felt wild, rampant, like a creature so overwhelmed with lust that it tried to copulate with the breeze rolling through. Uncontrollably he craned his neck and puckered his lips, hoping to find hers in the tangle of vines, but she was gone. The tangle was part of the bed.
The green lady simply could not have been a hallucination or cast illusion. Her kisses tingled on his face. Someone had freed the snails. When he dropped onto the floor and closely examined the moss he saw tiny fronds of it unfurl, recovering from her footsteps. Her presence had simply been intoxicating, setting him so adrift in a green sea that he lost the moment, and in that moment she took her leave.
His vow of chastity was a rope keeping him from being claimed by such tides, but he couldn’t help but fantasize about drowning. At least that was a death where he could struggle. None would scoff at his frenzied use of limb and belching of bubbled breath, no matter how undignified it would look. Should he do the same when he was expected to sit still and take the ax, it would be a stain of cowardice on his tale, like urine on his sheets.
It wasn’t long before he was visited again, this time by one of the overstayed. They informed him that Bertylak was ready to exchange gifts. Sir Gawain composed himself, stepped over a snail in his way delicately, and followed.
Again he was left in the earthen storeroom, its dirt still darkly stained with the blood of yesterday’s stag. Along its undisturbed drag marks came Bertylak, prize hefted over his shoulder. He threw the animal down between them, beaming. Over his other shoulder, then placed next to the carcass, was the sack of Rynard’s stolen goods.
On the previous day Lady Hautdesert had regaled him with the thrilling tale of Bertylak versus the green hart, only for him to be disappointed when the man brought back an ordinary animal. He had assumed that such emerald beasts did roam these woods, and that he caught them with some regularity, but that they had all evaded him that day. It was simple rotten luck that made the lady’s tale a lie.
The eye only bolstered this explanation, for in it he had watched the green fox, bigger than any wolf, tangle with the steward of the Green Chapel. He had seen the knife dragged down its side and the spilling of its blood. There was a corresponding wound on the carcass under his nose at that moment, but no green. The animal was again an ordinary one, not even of notable proportions this time.
“Well, what do you think?” Bertylak pressed, nudging the knight with his elbow.
“This was the thief?”
“Indeed. I’ll never understand the predilections of those animals that seek man’s shiniest baubles. What are they to even do with any of it?” He laughed, but Gawain didn’t join in. This was not the beast; it couldn’t be. Something else strange came to mind: what if the green beasts were even more like the green knight than he thought? The fellow was not bothered by losing his head, so why would a stag and a fox be troubled by arrows and knives?
The matching wound on this red fox vexed him as well. If their goal was to trick him by offering worse gifts, then the careful recreation of the knife marks suggested they knew he had watched through the eye.
A trick. Another cruel joke. Everything the green fellow did was under the falsest pretenses that could ever be crafted. Bad faith. Not men having their fun with each other. Fury frothed in the young knight as he realized Bertylak de Hautdesert was no friend of his. The flesh of a green beast was somehow the key, and it was being kept from him even as that keeping shattered their promise.
If he ate one it would imbue the power to survive the ax, Gawain decided. A verdant steak would impart just enough greenness for him to last through it, pick up his head, and put it back on. Those spoils, nay, green before they were spoiled, were the resource Sir Uriel wanted him to seek.
“This fox, how could it possibly carry that bag?” Gawain asked, showing more restraint than he’d ever shown in his life. If he slipped, extending his feelings as he had his lips with the green lady, then one of the overstayed would find their master slumped next to the vegetables with a curved dagger in his neck.
“Don’t underestimate the strength granted by greed,” Bertylak said, crestfallen. “Do you doubt me?” The knight said nothing, shrugging stiffly. “The beast may not have thought all this through to the end, overwhelmed as it was by the sudden abundance of treasure caused by the arrival of all our guests for Yule.”
“Stolen property that you have stuck me with.” Gawain crouched down and slowly sifted through the bag. He was quick to grab Sand’s dagger, stained with dry blood, and tuck it away in his clothes.
“I was sure you would know exactly what to do with it,” Bertylak said softly, dropping down with him. He sounded genuinely hurt.
“Just because I am known as the seasonal, who can’t keep his leaves in fall or his ice in spring? This means to you that I will give it all away freely, make myself a host alongside you? I do not revel in returning what was taken. I would rather things be kept in the first place.” He shot back to his feet. “My life may be as fleeting as the seasons, but every word of mine is a kept one.”
“Do you think I have deceived you in some way?” Bertylak asked, also rising and taking the young knight by the shoulders. Gawain didn’t speak. The information he had could’ve been all he had, until he had a flank of green to roast. Or perhaps he had to consume it raw…
“No my friend. I’m sorry. I’m upset because I didn’t join you in this glorious hunt. I was feeling ill this morning.”
“Was it in your stomach?” Bertylak asked. “Those who think their stay with us is about to end often come down with it. A sinking feeling.”
“I was sunk today, but not in fear. Let us discuss it no more. Tell me about these lovely gifts.” Bertylak smiled again and took him through everything in Rynard’s bag. The young knight was sure to touch every piece, thinking that he would be able to feel anything enchanted. He’d certainly spent enough time with such objects in recent days. He knew the aura of the round table, the Cyclipse’s eye, and the enticing ring the old woman had tried to give him.
Sadly, nothing in the bag made him feel the same way. None of it even made the hair on his arm stand. Jewels. A knife sheath. A necklace. A few chunks of precious ore. A love letter. There was no need for any trickery or selfishness after all, since he didn’t want to keep a single piece of it.
Two overstayed took the fox away to prepare it as part of the evening meal, leaving the stolen property with Gawain. Bertylak lingered, for it was time for his gifts. Gawain instructed him once again to close his eyes, and he did so without a moment’s hesitation, as if he had complete confidence in any nephew of King Arthyr.
Gawain held the blade of Sand’s dagger up to the unaware man’s neck. His hand trembled, enough that perhaps the steward cloud feel it, yet his expression was unchanged. He looked so very satisfied, so very sure. This was a man whose body couldn’t be hurt, but whose spirit could be doubly so. Gawain felt as if he held a knife to a sleeping lamb.
He pressed onto the man’s cheek, but not with the blade. The Green Lady had given him two kisses unlike any he had ever felt, but there was less pressure to deliver them exactly this time. He already knew he couldn’t. She was fey, and his inability to match her subtleties exactly, halfway through the first kiss, convinced him that she had been right all along. No promise could cover her. If they were chains she was water, flowing unhindered through the links. The second kiss only reinforced this.
“I would guess you’d grown closer to someone,” Bertylak crooned as he opened his eyes, “but those two felt different. Truly, I thought I was the friendliest person in these halls.” He smacked Gawain’s shoulder. “Wonderful. Perfect to remember you by.” The steward left him there, and Gawain didn’t move until he heard the distant sounds of people gathering for dinner.
As far as the evening meals so far, that night was surprisingly mild. There were only two new empty chairs, and there was no need to address them because the flowers were set and open before the wine and ale were even poured. The new blooms disturbed Gawain, but many of the others seemed in higher spirits than before. The woman he called Bonnet was especially cheerful, and she stared at him from around the throne as if she waited for some kind of invitation.
Bertylak again presided over the main course, which was supplemented by plenty of fish, since the gaunt Rynard was much smaller than the stag. While he ate his share of the meat, Gawain wondered how a green medallion would taste different, if at all. There were many possibilities, but he would know for sure when he hunted for himself the next morning.
“Friends, I have great news for all of you,” the steward announced as his seat spun in circles. “Our thief has been captured and cooked and gnawed to the bone by all of you, a feat only made possible by one amongst us. Come on up young man. Show everyone who you are.” Gawain grabbed the bag hidden between his legs and climbed up onto the table with it. Bertylak had not used his name, turning it into an anonymous act of charity.
“Yes, I’ve done it!” he couldn’t help but shout, unsure what took him over. Their faces were so lit up, almost like they didn’t know it themselves, like fireflies unaware they made their own way in the dark. “They call me free-giving, and nothing else, and now you will know why!” He slipped between plates and goblets, danced over sharp forks, and pulled an item out of the bag: a necklace holding a tiny painted portrait of a brown-skinned child.
Gawain held it up and showed it to all as he circled, bowing to hand it to its original owner when he saw recognition flash in their eyes. They thanked him, kissed it, and tucked it away. There was even scattered applause and laughter. He advised them to hold, for there was far more to give. One by one he returned the items until he came to Sand’s dagger. He stood there, above the man, and he had already seen it, so he couldn’t simply tuck it away.
“This looks like it’s yours, but I won’t assume,” the young knight panted. His fingers twitched. He had no adequate weapon to hunt with the next day.
“It is,” the man answered, but he didn’t reach for it. This baffled Gawain. What did he want? What did any of these people really want? Why couldn’t they just speak instead of bottling everything away, only to be shared with the hosts. They were all guests of the green knight!
Yet he was just as guilty. He wanted the knife, even if only for a day, so he wouldn’t have to steal one from the kitchen or break a green rabbit’s neck with his bare hands. Sand’s face was blank but malleable, like clay. Open to suggestion. Enough mirth to feel generosity, to at least momentarily forget rivalries and reputations.
“I have no need of it,” the young knight ended up saying, a sad little laugh wetting the tail of his words. He extended his hand, and Sand took it without another word. It hurt when it left his hand, despite not leaving a scratch, so he hurried on. There were still a few things rattling around the bottom of the sack.
Delightful as it was, he felt another twinge of regret when he looked down it and saw the last remaining treasure: the love letter. He hadn’t read it, it was folded in half, but in the crease he had seen a few words that suggested deep passion. It was the most delicate thing Rynard had taken, and the weight of much jewelry above it had torn it in a few spots.
He removed it delicately. There was a sound accompanying it, the letter’s pained gasp he thought, but it actually came from Bonnet. The other guests were talking amongst themselves and eating. Bertylak watched the two of them smugly, but turned away a moment later. Gawain wondered if the man thought he’d just identified the originator of his gifted kisses. All of this left them somewhat alone, the way he felt when addressed by the center of the ring table each night.
Suddenly aware of how silly he looked standing there, feet in some spilled sauce, he knelt before her and held the letter out. It slipped out of his fingers. She examined it with a growing smile.
“Thank you very much for returning this, good sir,” she said. Her voice struck him, but there was no reason for it to. He had heard it before, when she complained bitterly about starving. The woman from two nights ago was all but gone, replaced by someone warm and blissful. He did not think her particularly beautiful, but his heart fluttered all the same.
There was something he couldn’t account for in the women of the Green Chapel. This mysterious quality turned him into a puddle around their feet. What was it? Between the overstayed girl, Lady Hautdesert, the green lady, and Bonnet there was very little in common aside from the building they all slept in, if the green lady slept at all. Each was so… unpredictable.
A Camylot woman knew how to act in the presence of a knight. If she was the queen she commanded their respect, awe, and deference. If she was not she served them meekly, asserting herself only when they attempted to court her. Every act of defiance was merely a challenge for the man to overcome, a sly raising of the walls, to a height matching exactly the length of the coiled rope at his hip. A game of good faith.
“The women of the Green Chapel raise their walls when and where they wish,” Sir Gawain told Bonnet, “but I hope that you will lower yours enough to sate my curiosity. Is that letter a declaration of love and devotion? I did not read it, but I confess my eyes stumbled across the bottom lines.”
“It is,” she answered coyly. Her smile went well with her thin lips and wide-set eyes, giving her the look of a maiden glazed onto ceramic, her face widened just a little too much by crazing. She looked like a story with only the tiniest details missing, one he was certain he’d heard before.
“May I ask the author?”
“I wrote it.”
“And the recipient?” Bonnet placed one hand flat on her breast, just below her prominent collarbone. Her smile grew. “I don’t understand. You wrote a declaration of love… to yourself?”
“Yes. I needed some love to make it all the way here, and there was no one traveling with me who could provide it, so I made it myself. I took great care in choosing the words so that I would feel as cherished and protected as I could.”
“Such a gesture doesn’t make you feel lonely?” he asked.
“Lonely, yes, but not unloved. The latter is much worse.” She noticed his concerned expression. “Have you never looked within for strength?”
“Looking, no not exactly. I don’t need to look. Strength is there. I am the nephew of a king, and a knight in his court. Strength is in my titles, and they are plain to hear.”
“Is there love in there as well? And,” she chirped, anticipating his recitation of approved forms of love, “is it love for yourself?”
“A knight must not act selfishly.”
“You have a self don’t you?”
“Then you can no sooner stop acting selfishly than a fish can stop gulping water. Only the dead are selfless. it’s just a matter of loving one’s self, rather than being obsessed with it.” When he didn’t have anything to counter her point, she reached out and took his hand. In it she placed the love letter and closed his fingers around it. “You were noble to bring this back, but I think you should have it. They are my words, but read them as if they are yours. They will help you.”
He was about to tell her that he couldn’t accept any gifts without giving them away when Bertylak stepped down, patting him on the shoulder as he went. It was time again for the lord of the castle to check in with his guests. Gawain scurried back to his seat so his feet wouldn’t get gnawed by the fissure in the ring table that took their plates between courses.
Auhauhauhauhauhauhauh! That laugh still made him cringe, but at least this time it didn’t rattle his bones. Too preoccupied he was with Bonnet’s gift. He didn’t read it under the table; that would make it too easy a target for one of the green knight’s vines to snatch. No, he was busy recognizing that he didn’t actually have to turn the letter over to Bertylak the following night. The terms of their game clearly stated he was to hand over whatever he gained during the day, and they were well into the dim of evening.
It was foolish to not see that before. He could have whatever he wanted, as long as he had it after their exchange and before daybreak. Anything he desired. In the place where anything seemed possible. Where none would ever hear of his last deeds, no matter how unbecoming, knowing only the bravery in his willing execution.
“We missed you during the hunt,” the green fellow said, leaning his giant face down close to the young knight’s, dragging him out from under his thoughts. “I wanted to see if you were as skilled with a bow as you are with an ax.”
“I was preoccupied,” he snarled back.
“Yes, I’ve heard about that. You’ve found affection within my walls… but not for the creatures that share your room.” His narrowed eyes made it clear that he knew about the snails. Spies, every one of them. That was why the green lady closed the curtains around the bed after freeing them, so they couldn’t spy their time together.
“Whatever I find is none of your concern. I promise none of it affects my neck.”
“Still, hearing about this other side of you has me eager to know you a little better. Will you join Bertylak and I on the morrow? We’re after your last meal, and we plan to make it excellent.”
“I must decline,” Gawain said resolutely. It felt almost perversely good to deny him. So pleasing the rejection was on his palate that he hardly tasted the small cakes brought out for dessert. He reveled in the worst injury he would ever inflict on the green knight: the small abashed look on his face as he spun Gawain away to get a more agreeable guest.
Continued in the Finale