Awake before the sun even rose on his final full day, Gawain’s plans were already difficult to set in motion. There was little to actually apply that motion to but his body, but that was pinned down. One of the snails, by far the largest, was sat on his sternum with both stalked eyes trained on his. The two were close enough to kiss.
Removing it would have been trivial, except he was vexed by its glittering green flesh, the edges of its slimy foot lapping like the foam of a lazy sea. The flesh around its eyes was swollen into a form like eyelids, giving it the frightening expression of a man. The snail didn’t appear angry with him, but extremely concerned, as if he might vanish from underneath at any moment.
“Are you the lord of the snails?” he asked it in a whisper, ashamed to say such an absurd thing. It offered no response. He wondered if it might eventually, but a conversation was impossible because they thought as slowly as they moved. “You weren’t here before.” Of that he was sure; none of them had been green. Its shell was a normal amber color, like an ancient tree suddenly grew toenails, so perhaps it had simply stayed inside its home until now.
The confrontation dragged on long enough for the sun to rise. Soon Bertylak and the green fellow would meet at the stream and head out for their hunt. He had to beat them to their prey, to claim that green flesh since it wouldn’t be honestly offered.
Yet the stoic snail gave his mind plenty to chew on. Spying for its master no doubt, but such creatures were not venomous. All he had to do was press his hand against its unprotected eyes, and when it retracted into its shell place his foot on top while he made his preparations. More time was eaten as he considered the other option.
This was a green beast, no matter how pathetic. Its flesh very well met the qualifications. It was a reliable peasant dish in Logrys, as the dim creatures loved to brazenly attack leafy crops without any method of escape. Children filled buckets with them and brought them to their mothers for plucking and boiling. Once the slime was completely replaced by butter they were more than tolerable. Occasionally they had been served at the round table, so he was familiar with the unorthodox texture.
Questions compounded painfully. Did it sense his intent? Would it retract the moment he moved? If so did he have any means of prying it loose from such a large shell? Smashing would work, but the noise would draw more attention. A lunging bite might be the best maneuver, right from his current position, followed by vigorous head shaking like a dog tearing skin from a shank of meat.
The taste would be quite unpalatable if handled that way, but the stains it might leave on his honor were subject to disgust as well. These creatures were treated as guests. If he killed any of them within the Green Chapel’s walls word would spread of his barbarism, of the knight that rewarded hospitality with slaughter. Could all of this happen over a single snail? Eventually, after more than two hours, the young knight finally shouted another question.
“Would it be rude to devour you!?” The vermin responded this time, clearly, with a nod of its eye stalks. That was that then. All a waste of his time. The green knight tested his resolve in attempts to sabotage his participation in the game. Failing that, he sought to besmirch the knight’s good name by filling the heads of the people with mad stories of him seducing women in trees and fountains and spitting snails instead of curses. “I won’t be kept here all day!” Gawain’s hands shot out from under the blankets and grabbed the sides of its shell.
To his surprise it didn’t retract; if anything it looked almost smug now. Taunted he felt; the snail was the sausage on a string dangled in front of a starving hound. If he gave in and ate the guest sharing his room, only the most dreadful version of the tale would reach the pristine ears of Queen Gwenyvyr. Pained by his unchivalric conduct she might even shed a tear, and to pull a tear from her was the same as pulling a hundred times the blood from an angel. She believed in him, even more than Arthyr, and so was all that made him real.
Gently he set the snail down on the bed. No harm would come to it, but it wouldn’t have the chance to report anything about his departure from the room. He threw the blanket over it, turning it into a furry lump, though not inert, for after a moment he could see that it was racing to the edge as fast as it could. A few moments he had before it completed its desperate dash back to the open air, so he gathered up what he had for the hunt: appropriate clothing, the ogre’s eye, and the lion’s shield.
Without an edge sharp enough to cut, the shield was of little use for claiming his prize, but it might keep him alive long enough to claim it. Both the green hart and Rynard had seemed quite capable of separating a man from his innards, and every moment it acted as barrier between some other green beast and his skin was an opportunity to turn the fight in his favor. All was well; Sand was surely in greater need of that dagger even if he hadn’t wanted to admit it.
Free of the room before the snail could free one stretched eye, the young knight was immediately swept away by a stinging stream of bugs. They weren’t actual stings, just the minuscule slaps of wing edges as they mostly avoided crashing into him. Damsels and dragons, in the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands! Like water through a pipe they flew, and forced Gawain to blindly stumble with them.
“What is this?” he barked after hunkering down and blocking them with his shield. They bounced off it harmlessly with a sound like rain, crawling all over his hands and arms in search of a spot to take wing once more. “Virgin mother give me strength,” he asked of the portrait staring back, the only safe eyes to look upon. Those of the bugs were frightening in their complexity: large, globular, and shimmering. Broken up into a hundred panels yet united by dark shifting shoals like pupils. They were crystals in which a single dark future might be seen struggling to stay afloat in the optimism of dawns and bounties.
Many of them had green eyes, but one had a green body as well, which he noticed as it crawled down his nose. Such a color was not strange for a dragonfly, but in the seams of its wings, which it put right over his eyes like a pair of spectacles, he saw the shine of emerald. Could it be? Yet another green beast? Still a guest. Still a distraction from the ones he could eat.
Gawain shook them off, but he couldn’t possibly fight their flow as they continued to pelt his face and chest. Before the chapel had politely guided him with flower trails, so the hostile push now must have signified a change in its demeanor. The whole accursed place was tearing off its mask of decency. Soon the green knight would reveal the truth, that everything he gave was in bad faith, that it was all meant to fight Camylot rather than join it in fraternity.
The bugs took him down paths he hadn’t explored, to a dark part of the castle that smelled somewhere between muddy rain and the bubble nests of toads. The plants of the walls and ceiling no longer bothered mimicking braziers and chandeliers; they were engorged hedonistic things now brimming with rippling nectar gold and inky purple. It must have been the vibrating wings of the dragons and damsels that created those ripples, for the same sound shook the tiny bones in his ears, kept him from hearing a door open, if indeed that even happened. Something new moved in his hair, and when he swatted it away he found he was in a room free of the bugs, his fingers interlocked with those of Lady Hautdesert.
“I apologize for my crude methods,” she said as she pulled him deeper into the chamber. There was a bed, but this was no bedroom. It was a hollow in the stone like a knot in a tree, a place for a giant squirrel or owl to nest rather than man. The bed was an irregular shape, as if a stump had rotted and collapsed more like a gourd. The light wood of its edge grew all the way up into the ceiling, spiraling as it became roots. Had the bugs dragged him below ground?
“What is this? I don’t understand!” the knight sputtered, ripping his hand away and brushing off his clothes as if they still crawled over him. They were alone. Not even a crushed one on the floor. Just phosphorescent toadstools on the wall bathing them in eerie chalky light. Her answer was to hold up the brightest item in the hollow: the red-orange ring.
“Take it,” she insisted, stepping forward, though she seemed distressed by their moving further from the sunken bed with the ragged edge.
“Why do you offer this to me?”
“It is a gift. An advantage for players of green games. A thing that knows all the rules and whispers their thorns in your ear so you know not to prick yourself with the heavy slapping footfalls that so characterize young confident men like you.”
“I have refused that ring once already, from the older lady of the castle. She was going to give it to me again, on the morrow, when I do not have to turn over any gifts to your husband!”
“No, I don’t think she would have,” Lady Hautdesert said, pulling it back and examining the white star laid in it. “Her memory is very poor, and her temperament is fickle. I took it from her to give to you… and she nearly screamed her head off her shoulders when I did.”
“You stole it?”
“She deserves our respect, but sometimes we must be forceful. She is but a shelf of potions in woman’s guise. A cabinet given legs only to keep dust from settling. Now take it, and then join me so that we may give it fuel.” She sat on the bed, sinking into its bear pelt blankets. Only now did he realize how little she wore, just a torn skin of red silk already slipping from her shoulders, her waist…
“No more games!” he cried. “I am full up with them! Tell me the truth. Why do you seduce me!? Is Bertylak not the man he claims to be? Are you as dissatisfied as the green lady is with her oaf?”
“This is no betrayal,” she shouted back before putting her knees under her and gripping the jagged wood. “What goes on between the two of us has nothing to do with any other two I might create. I overstay my welcome to create whatever two pleases me, and I will create one with you. As you’ve slowed my efforts with your foolishness in the tree the other day… I will see you live a few days more until I’ve had the best of you. Come to me Sir Gawain.”
“I am no plaything!” He put up his shield between them, as if the shine of her now exposed breast was a wall of flame.
“Yet you agree to any game put forth by a man! This woman’s is not so unfair, I assure you.”
“What power does that ring possess?”
“The power to save you! It is a witch’s ring made of ravenous desire and pure confidence. Most of all it is greatly ungreen. It pushes away the influence of Anwynn, certain that the hearts of men and women can warm each other sufficiently. When you wear this the green ax will deflect as if your neck was stone… but only if it is fed.”
“Reminded of human passion. We must be together Gawain, here and now. We must lose track of which finger, which hand, and which lover holds it.”
“Do not… straddle there and call me a lover! If you are not betraying your husband then you are in league with him! You seek to deny me the difficult dangerous trial that can actually save me. Of course. Only true faith, bravery, and valiant effort can get anything done. The rest is a lie, a sickly sweet temptation.”
“Your salvation is before you Sir Gawain! My husband’s affairs are his own. My kindness will save your life. Please, see what you can have. May your gaze pierce.”
“That haze of manly laughter. All that flying spittle from the false confidence of your king, of the other knights, of even some guests around the ring table. You are not the commemorative statue they would make of you.”
“You know nothing of me! I’m a towering man, sitting atop a great pile of gifts, yet no matter how many I pull out and rain down I never get any closer to the people who benefit. It only pains me to be absurdly… successfully… resourceful!” He pulled out the ogre’s eye and squeezed it with abandon. If his glove caught fire he would simply have to endure that too. Aimed not at the lady, but at a random spot on the dark uneven wall, the eye’s luminous blast blinded them both.
He succeeded in frightening the chamber as he’d hoped. The entryway he’d been soundlessly sucked in through revealed itself, popping open like a spider’s trapdoor. The knight scurried away, the lady’s protests drowned out by the clinking hissing roll of the eye in his shield. He had to roll it back and forth to cool it while he ran, but also keep it from passing over the virgin mother’s face, for scalding it would be both a terrible sin and the loss of his only company.
No more shelled or clawed things obstructed him as he fled, but he couldn’t find his way outside the chapel. When a path dumped him into the courtyard he chose to once again climb one of the curved trees and throw himself down the other side. Only then did he feel free enough to breathe. A snort made him jump.
“Gringolet!” He rushed to the horse and hugged her neck, smelling deeply. Somehow she still smelled of Camylot. Of a real stable and blankets woven by human hands. Of crackling hay and boot leather and the powdery sweat of wrought iron. “How do you do these things my friend?” The horse gave him exactly what he wanted, which was no indication at all that she understood his words.
She was ready for him, saddle, bridle, and even bit in place. Riding her made him feel himself again, like his time and efforts needed to be carefully spent because there was the return ride to consider. Together they penetrated deep into the wood, bounding over the stream where the green fellow bathed, in search of a mythical green beast he’d heard so much about.
The eye was no help in tracking it, but when he shifted targets to Bertylak the man was quickly located. It was somewhere nearby surely, for even the shade of green and the amount of dew on the surrounding plants seemed to match his trail. The steward was alone again, this time without even a steed to help him.
Gawain pulled Gringolet’s reins to slow her, matching the man’s pace. Bertylak crept through the forest with his bow out and an arrow nocked, but something had gotten to him even before that. There was a brash bruise across his forehead and cheek that turned into a bloody scrape. His collar was so stained by it that Gawain couldn’t tell its original color. Bertylak’s knuckles on one hand were swollen, purple, and shaking. His stalk was so slow because of a limp.
“Something’s finally got the better of you friend,” Gawain cursed, lowering his voice at the end when he realized the man could be within sight if it wasn’t for all the damned forest between them. Gawain dismounted with the warm eye clutched in his hand. “Stay here Gringolet. We must move quietly until we know what it is I’ll be having for supper.”
Bertylak whirled around, making the young knight freeze as if seen. The eye’s gaze had no presence where it landed though, so it must have been the sounds of the beast that startled the man. After a moment he broke out into a limping run, Gawain again instinctively moving as the man passed right through the spot where he would’ve stood if using his true eyes.
“Did he hear it? How loud-” Ktick! Gringolet’s head turned. Gawain glanced at her feet and saw how solidly they were placed. There was no broken stick under her. Kruck! Ktick-kruck! It was a trail being cut in a matter of seconds, just out of sight, but it wouldn’t vex him for long. Trees shook. Leaves fell. Gawain raised his shield just in time for a head larger than his chest to burst out from behind the vines and snag him on its tusks.
He didn’t know if he clung to it in fear of what getting trampled under it might feel like or if the force of its charge kept him pressed against its mouth. Its breath snorted from great fleshy nostrils riddled with lumps like beetles struggling to swim through thick stew. Flecks of white snot shot out with each pant, quickly coating the ogre’s eye. The orb had fallen into its nose and was now rolling back and forth along the nostril’s curve like a ramp. In it a fading Bertylak was still running, trying to catch up with that horrible crash he’d heard.
The monster was a boar, larger than any he’d ever seen, green as tripe made from the bowels of the forest itself. Its tusks were long and sharp, almost like silver, the way Lady Hautdesert had described the antlers of the green hart.
His shield was gone, dented and left behind. If Gringolet followed he couldn’t hear her over the beast’s pounding charge. Its cloven hooves plucked any saplings stuck in them straight from the ground. Any bushes in its way exploded, every last leaf ripped from its stem. If it should decide to test its strength on one of the mightier trees Gawain would be smashed brutally between them, his heart wishing to be treated as well as the leaves spinning to the dirt behind them.
“Stop!” he snarled at it, adjusting himself by slipping a tusk under his left arm. He raised one leg and kicked, jamming the ogre’s eye further down its snout. The animal squealed madly, so he kicked again, lodging the eye deep in the passage. “Just having a look at your insides! They are to be mine after all!” The green boar swung its head, the force pulling his leg out. His pant leg clung wetly and a giant rope of snot bobbed from his ankle, but he only had a moment to observe before the monster sucked the leg into its gullet and bit down.
The excruciating pain took more than his boasts and threats. Lights popped in his vision like the day and night vying for position in every bubble of air. Any leaves he saw flashed black while their veins shined golden. The night was winning, for everything about him got dimmer.
His only weapons were his arms, but the beast was so large that he couldn’t reach its eyes. Again he went for the only fleshy weakness, the interior of its gargantuan disgusting nose. The only way to commit his whole strength to the attack was to take himself off the tusks. Now the only thing keeping him on the creature was the depth achieved by his arms as they each crawled into a nostril pipe. He clawed at slime, hairs, and scars that must have been caused by other little creatures trying to escape the abyss of its airway. His right hand found the stuck eye and anchored its fingers around it.
The tickle in its throat finally became intolerable. The beast skidded to a halt, reared back its head and Gawain along with it, and then sneezed a roar, or perhaps the other way around, that threw him across a small clearing and into a thorn bush. The eye went with him, and the first thing he saw when his mind stopped flashing thunder was Bertylak within it, running along a freshly shredded path in the undergrowth.
Fear stiffened the young knight’s heart. Bertylak was following the path the boar had just made, parts of it with Gawain scratching at his nose. The steward would be upon them both in moments. He would have to explain himself… or fight Bertylak for the chance to slay the boar. The monster offered its opinion in the form of a screeching bellow. Down its throat was a wet crimson cave of mashed bugs chewed up alongside its grazing.
It took a step closer. Another. Gawain faltered, at a loss as to where his courage had gone. Literal dragons he had faced, monsters so poisonous that walking upon the same ground where they slithered could make his joints sore. This green pig was just a side of bacon that hadn’t given in to its frying pan fate, yet its determination lived more than his.
Before there had always been glory to achieve, both in death and in victory. This time Gawain had been ordered back alive, so falling to the boar was failure most embarrassing, like being pecked to death by the chickens in Camylot’s coop.
He had no weapon either. Even with Sand’s dagger in his hand it would’ve felt much more doable. As it stood the animal was likely more than five times his weight, and it had two swords firmly planted in its jaw. He couldn’t win, and a knight’s vigor for battle was nowhere to be found.
It was about to charge when the sound of someone else barreling through the branches drew its gaze. Bertylak was there, not quite in sight, but present. Gawain’s plan fell apart as he stood there, terrified frustration seething between his teeth. In his distracted squeezing the Cyclipse’s eye grew hot again and the snot coating it bubbled and popped.
The eye! It was his weapon. With no time left he put both hands around it, aimed it at the boar, and squeezed. The attempt backfired badly; both his gloves caught fire. The snot was entirely evaporated, so there was nothing to douse it as it seared the flesh of his palms. Gawain dropped the orb as tears streamed from his eyes. It was all over. He was not one of the great men, not an angel of any angle. His charade of manhood was over, and he’d been caught out in the thicket of the mature, recognized as nothing but a bawling misplaced toddler.
Gringolet could not stand such a sight. It was one thing for men to break down in the comfort of their homes, but this was the wide open world. There were no walls to echo sobs and sniffles and mimic sympathy. She also knew a monster when she saw one, and an exit when it was time to leave.
The horse galloped along the boar’s trail of destruction, picking up her rider’s dropped shield in her mouth when it passed by. The green boar paid no attention, its stare fixed on Bertylak’s approach.
“Gringolet!” Sir Gawain cried, somewhere between a gasp and a swallow. He reached out his raw red hands. She could only do so much, as it was up to him to endure the pain of grabbing her saddle and mounting while she ran by. He succeeded, but had forgotten to retrieve the ogre’s eye from the ground. Once he was mounted she handled that as well, lowering her head and scooping it up in the bowl of the shield.
After that she fled, straight back to the chapel, having had more than enough of these silly games. Instinctively she knew how long she was supposed to wait for him. It was just another day more. Then she would be free to head back unburdened. Until then he was safer within the walls of the chapel, where the animals couldn’t get to him and where his tears wouldn’t draw attention.
For his part Gawain was bombarded with different pains. He barely noticed when Gringolet bucked him off at the outer walls, rubbing against him until he was pressed into one of the wilting trees that became the canopy of the courtyard. Eventually he climbed it, though each grasp made his burnt hands scream again.
The fall was just as much a blur as the climb, and it might have been enough to kill him if several of the branches within the courtyard hadn’t bent to catch and slow him. The last one placed him, gently, on the lip of the fountain, at the low center of descending stairs in all directions. The day was still young, the courtyard quiet. Gawain’s sobbing was accompanied only by the flow of the fountain behind him.
At some point during the retreating ride he had sought comfort in his belongings. The shield was on his back and the eye tucked into his clothes, but he couldn’t find the effort to pull either of them into his lap and stroke them.
“Soothe your hands in the water,” a voice said. Its owner couldn’t matter to him in that moment, so he obeyed. His boots went in first, and then his raw hands. The remaining skin tensed in the sharp cold under the ripples. It did soothe. She was right. “You don’t need these.” The boots were pulled from his feet and sunk. The water wrapped around his toes like silk ribbons. She was right; he didn’t need them.
“I have failed,” he wept.
“I was so sure I could get a bite of it. Just one bite. The green flesh that gives fortitude. I would’ve had a rolling laughing head to mock the green knight with.”
“Your head is not supposed to roll. It should stay right where it is. It should smile at me.” Gawain lifted his head. The green lady swam before him, hair glittering and cascading down her naked shoulders. The flowers in her locks were closed and sealed in bubbles. Her clothing, or her outer fronds, split from her slowly, floating in a widening circle around her like lily pads.
“I’m going to die empty, without a single virtue left.”
“Not even your chastity?”
“No. I will have vengeance instead.” She surged forward and wrapped her giant arms around his waist. Gawain did not resist the pull, the rush of frigid water as he was drawn down under the surface. His pulse throbbed in his temples as she dragged him deeper. The light dimmed, the shadows of her fronds playing out across her skin beautifully and without the loss of a single detail.
There wasn’t time to marvel at her arcane magnificence, not with so little air in his lungs. Under the water’s skin they were in another realm, a place of only their make, and for the brief time the seal was unbroken by his gasping head nothing else would be of consequence. Once their lips touched he was mad with desire for all the things he was denied in the other worlds that wouldn’t let him keep a cool head.
The pressure of Logrys always bearing down, always suppressing his natural self. The fatigue of Lossys, insisting all was lost and there was nothing he could do. The shadow of Anwynn, the monsters out to shred his virtues. None of them allowed him this. None of them allowed him the embrace of a chosen woman, the relief of tears properly distributed across the fertile earth.
Sir Gawain and the green lady kissed deeply. He clung to her like a bat to a cavern wall, fingers convinced they should create furrows in her flesh. Her aura was like the land itself, like he had lived comfortably in the quiet of her green hills for years without ever seeing another person round a piece of her.
Her hands were just as busy, working into his clothes and pulling them off, casting them aside to hang in the water like phantoms. They didn’t tear or pull, simply coming off because she knew how to unwrap him, to find the young man at the off-center of his reputation. When they were both bare she drew him deeper, swinging him under her so the sunlight would be hidden behind her head and the billowing shadows of her hair.
Gawain found the time and place where love began, their bodies intertwining. In another rush of breath streaming from his nose as silver bubbles he found the connection he always suspected lovemaking would offer. It was incredible, and he saw why the one god would hide it from his children: they would want nothing else. In countless worlds of two there was no room for the divine spirit, no need for a cross in the spokes of their spinning wheel.
The thrust, not from any single part of him, but from his blazing soul, pushed them toward the surface, toward fresh air to renew his efforts, but the green lady pushed back. Deep they stayed, not quite touching the bottom, though he could feel its extra chill on his back. He tried to tell her that he needed air, and there was much he wanted to add. It was not air to keep his life going, but to extend their pleasure. His body wouldn’t obey the order to please her without a gulp of the outside world as payment.
Confidently she assured him he needed no such thing, not with words, but with evidence of her power. Air came to his lungs straight from hers, like a breeze taken up through the fir trees. The force of it pushed out the last of his used breath, bubbles streaming from his nose fast as he could make them. His chest swelled and tingled, her air even taking some of the burn from his muscles.
Once he was restored they tumbled around the bottom, losing up and down, both feeling the ecstasy and urging it to greater crests. Gawain’s hand ran up the back of her neck, spreading the leafy tendrils of her hair as if he was about to pluck a bushy-topped carrot from the ground. Her feet touched the bottom, making him bounce on her, drawing his focus to the rest of her voluptuous form.
She walked along, holding him, their stomachs pressed together, his navel kissing the spot where hers should’ve been. This was not vengeance, he had to admit. It was just joy. It was a thing he could never have if he was to deliver his promised death, because memories of it would stall him on his way to the gallows.
He opened his eyes and saw the alarming expression in hers. Her pupils had drifted up into her eyelids and were quaking back and forth. Her mouth was open; water filled her throat. Not a single bubble was left. Gawain panicked, kicking his legs to take her back to the surface. The woman had foolishly given him all of her air, doubling their time under, but robbing herself of control.
As much as he kicked she still held onto him, though she lifted her feet off the bottom so they could hang ethereally once more. She kissed him again, giving him air that the green of her body must have made somehow, perhaps crafted in the leaves of her hair. If she could make it why wasn’t she saving any for herself?
Gawain shouted, belching her gift back out, urging her to swim. The green lady looked back as if all was well, smiling even as her as half-lidded eyes trembled. Her throat seized and her chest bucked, but she still would not relinquish him from between her thighs.
The young knight seized as well, spent. He collapsed against her, head between her breasts, palms sliding down the small of her back. As his head recovered from the bursts of light within he realized they were floating up now. Try as they might it could not go on forever. It was but one breath in a series, and borrowing time after the exhale was plenty dangerous, as attested by her expression.
The green lady looked far too serene. Her pupils were wide and still, her mouth open. Her nostrils were stiff, abandoned by air entirely. He hugged her close, expecting the comforting confirmations of her life: heartbeat, breath, and warmth. The first two were absent and the third fleeing fast. His panic was about to get the best of him when she again grabbed him around the waist. With a strong kick she took them both all the way to the surface, and upon breaking through placed him on the stone lip of the fountain as if placing a wooden doll with dangling legs.
“My lady!” he sputtered. “Are you alright? I could’ve swore you were drowned!” Rather than answer him she climbed the central rings of the fountain. Her head flopped forward and joined them in their pour; enough water issued from her throat to fill three buckets. While she expelled it her outer layers, having grasped her skin with thin tendrils, coiled out of the water and formed her clothing-like exterior once more. As she dried she ran a hand through her hair, pulling it all back in a bunch and popping the bubbles around her flowers, allowing them to open.
“I was drowned,” she answered, her voice far softer than before, as if it had soaked up half the chill from the bottom of the fountain. She looked at him, still wearing that haunting dead expression. There was still affection in her words, but there was no movement in her cheeks and lips to match it. Not even a wrinkle on her brow. Where her words were coming from he couldn’t guess, because her mind had to be gone, swept away by the depths.
“I’m… sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“Do not fret Sir Gawain. I am no more bothered by this death than my husband was when you cut off his head.” Gawain heard the man’s laugh in his memory, issuing from both his mouth and the stump of his neck.
“Are you certain? The last thing I would do, and I should know on this, my last day, is hurt you my lady. You are a wonder. Your kindness to me moved my very core. I don’t care that you’re fey, only that you took pity on me.”
“I foresaw this death and hoped for it,” she said as she hopped to the edge of the fountain. Her feet were nimble, but her torso and arms bobbed limply. “You will accept my pity now, even as it goes against your knightly virtues?”
“Yes. They will go on without me, whether I uphold them or not. I think I was always an inferior vessel. Though I have four limbs and a head held high they are not the points of the pentangle as I had hoped. I billowed like cloth in the water with you, folded like parchment around the poetry of your motion…”
“Do not excoriate yourself before me,” she requested, walking along the edge until she stood over him, dripping. She placed her hand on his naked shoulder. Her fingertips felt spongy, but the touch still excited him. “I tell you that it is not pity.”
“It isn’t? Then why do you help me?”
“I believe in you Gawain. Under those crushing promises you are a beautiful man, and after having you I am only more certain. You have proven to me that you can be just the beating of your heart and the rushing of your blood when everything else is stripped away. For this proof you will be rewarded, and you will live.”
She reached into the fronds around her waist and grabbed something. Out came a chain mail belt, the links as small as ants. Its color was as green as hers, but given an incredible metallic luster. There was a buckle made of the same, its fine wire twisted into the shape of a moon bearing leafy veins. The green lady lowered it into his lap as if ladling cream back and forth across a dessert.
“What is this?”
“It is what you have sought. This girdle is enchanted with fey magic. Every link is a portal to a fairy’s eye, and those creatures refuse to look upon death. With this around your waist no mortal wound will come to you, no matter how hard my husband swings.” Gawain couldn’t believe it. He took up the belt, marveling at its light weight. There wasn’t a seam or bump visible anywhere in the metalwork, telling him it was indeed forged by hands small enough to use moth antennae as reins.
“I cannot accept this now,” he realized aloud, trying to hand it back to her. “I have promised everything to Bertylak. Even if I had hunted a green beast only one bite would’ve been mine, and only because as our dinner I was entitled to a portion. Please, take this back and give it to me again tonight, after my game with him is finished.”
“No.” His color drained to match her drowned expression. “I tell you that I have nothing to do with any of your promises. I will not work my ways around them. If you keep your word death will be your reward. I require no promise that you will use my gift. I ask only that you think of me, and what I would want, when you’re deciding how worthless you are.”
She stepped down. He turned to argue, but was met with her cold lips. She kissed each of his cheeks and his forehead, telling him he was free to give those to Bertylak. They felt as if she had placed shredded dried pieces of melon rind against his skin rather than lips. Her body had not gotten over the drowning, perhaps souring her spirit enough to reject his request.
Thinking it would be the worst insult to beg her or drag her back, the young knight watched her depart, disappearing into the ornamental trees as if walking into a fog bank. He sat there, hands trembling, for quite some time. Eventually he heard footsteps beyond the trees and remembered that there were all sorts of guests about. Any of them might come across his stark nakedness in their own efforts to find salvation from the chapel’s revels.
Diving back in, Gawain reclaimed his soaked clothing piece by piece and wrung it out. He was a terribly wrinkled mess, but he made sure the girdle was completely hidden when he secured its clasp around his waist. He didn’t doubt its magic for a moment, for he could feel it tingling across his skin, like the pattering feet of fairy children.
“Virgin mother, what should I do?” he asked, stuck on the edge of the fountain thanks to the penetrating chill of his wet clothes. He picked up his shield to confide in her, to examine her painted eyes for any sign of the correct path. To his shock the portrait looked alive, her eyes focused on him, but she was not the virgin mother.
She wore the virgin mother’s clothes; she borrowed the halo of light behind her. Her hair was similarly hidden under her cloak, and her pose an exact copy. But this was not the mother of the man Jysus. She was green, as if someone had taken an emerald-tipped brush to his only possession while he was distracted in the fountain.
Gawain choked back his words. The green woman in the portrait smirked at him, knowing far too many things about his spirit, as if she had borrowed the virgin mother’s knowledge in addition to her seat on the edge of his shield. Worst of all was the stolen proportions of Mary’s visage. This painted green woman was larger, freer with her emotions, but she still had the cheeks, eyes, nose, and jawline of the shield’s original occupant.
“You are not!” he yelped, tossing the shield away. It sled across the ground and came to a stop. He was lucky that the intruder showed nothing so lively as sticking her legs out of it and making it waddle back. After it slid to a halt it just sat there, making him look like the strange one. Whoever she was, she was not his green lady either.
Like the snail, he decided. A vexing visitor meant to paralyze him with fear and waste his precious time. Finally he hopped off the fountain, and when he picked the shield up again he saw that she was gone. The virgin mother was back in her place, with her safe static expression of untouchable grace.
There wasn’t much left to his final day, only the confirmation of his suspicions and his final decision. He waited in his room until he was summoned by one of the overstayed and taken to the storeroom. Bertylak’s laughter echoing in the crevice signaled his return, though it sounded like it took all his strength to enjoy himself. His back came into view first, for he was dragging his heavy prey.
The animal was so large that it got stuck; the steward looked over his shoulder and asked his friend for assistance. Without a word Gawain walked to his side and examined the creature. There was a tusk for each of them to grab and pull, but he didn’t need to fear their sharpness. The boar was hulking, but not the moss-backed beast that had so terrified him in the forest.
Together they pulled until a bone in its shoulder popped and the whole thing came sliding out. They fell over and it landed atop them, prompting another bout of laughter from Bertylak. The man’s head flopped toward Gawain, letting the young knight see his various minor wounds and the bruises splashed across his eyes and the bridge of his nose.
“All of this bacon is yours!” he sighed enthusiastically. “What a meal to end on. Promise me you won’t eat breakfast tomorrow. You’ll want this as the final taste on your tongue.”
“No more promises,” Gawain said flatly. His anger was back, knotted up in the branches of his lungs, hot as red coals. That was three green beasts replaced by animals he could’ve caught himself. The only real gift would’ve been that vibrant flesh. The young knight lifted the boar’s head just enough to lean over; he delivered three dry kisses to Bertylak’s cheeks and forehead.
“Oh… have things not gone well between you and your other friend?” the steward asked. “Those felt like mere obligation.”
“She was sad. They were farewell kisses. She knew that we both had much more to give, but that the lord of this castle took advantage of me. You are the last one to get anything from me, Bertylak.”
“And those dry kisses are the last?” Gawain stiffened. The girdle was cool against his waist, and he was suddenly worried that moving might cause it to clink, though it had made no noise at all up to that point. The young knight nodded, scrambling out from under the carcass as if it was already cooking.
“This has been… I will see you at dinner. Thank you for the gifts, though I think the other guests should share in this one as well.” He left as quickly as he could, thankful that the man didn’t call after him. The steward’s teasing was finally over, something he thought confirmed when he returned to his room and couldn’t find the green snail anywhere. No need for any more spies or tricks, because he had failed to find a green bite to eat, and his master would now have his devilish stroke.
Dinner that night was supposed to be a somber affair, but the green knight cheated. More games had come to an end that day, so the ring table should’ve been empty. Most of the chairs bore a flower. The cheat came in the form of new arrivals: people who hadn’t yet learned what the chapel would do to them.
After he sat down Gawain made no attempt to talk to any of them. His own story would just be an omen for them, and he didn’t want to be reduced to such a state. Instead he turned to Sand to share one last conversation, to convince the man that he wasn’t afraid of what was coming.
The foreigner had proven frustratingly resistant to his posturing, but he had softened much on that final night, his carved physique replaced by a delicate stem and soft petals. The longer Gawain stared at the flower the more it made his insides feel like a driving rain cloud. Its striped colors, yellow and brown, belonged to a flower of the desert, one that only bloomed every few years when torrential downpours came.
“You didn’t even tell me it was your last day,” he whispered to the bloom. The young knight wanted to spit venom at the steward, but the man did not attend dinner at all that night. Instead it was the green fellow from the first bite until dessert, and he stayed turned away, entertaining the newcomers with fey magic tricks.
With no one to speak to, Gawain kept his eyes on his plate. The shoulder of pork that came to him was perfectly cooked, moist with crispy skin, an aroma like the walls of an oven that had cooked everything from aurochs to phoenixes. Yet as he chewed it was like eating a recently deceased raw frog, something skimmed off the top of a pond because it was just bloated enough to float.
With his mouth having already decided it was dead, it became impossible to focus on the meal. His attention was pulled across the table, to a chair hidden by the green fellow’s throne, when he recognized a laugh caused by the green man pulling a live snake out of his nose and sending it slithering through the utensils.
Gawain couldn’t believe it, for it was worse than any unbelievable thing he’d seen so far, ogre included. He shot up from his chair and marched around the table until he could see to confirm. There he was, mouth full of the animal Gawain had gifted, pounding on the wood like it was the unbreakable stone of the round table.
“Lancylot!” The man turned and smiled at him, setting down the bones he was cleaning and wiping his mouth.
“Sir Gawain,” he greeted, teeth full of connective tissue and shining with grease, “what a place to quest to! I didn’t suspect you’d have it so easy.”
“What are you doing here?” He stole a glance at the green fellow, but he had already turned away. All he could see was a green tuft of hair over the back of the throne and flashes of his hands as he gesticulated wildly.
“I’m here to ride back with you, once you’ve succeeded of course. Arthyr didn’t want you to be alone in your moment of triumph. Besides, you have to let someone else tell your story or you’ll look like a braggart.” He sucked the foam off the top of his goblet and guzzled half of it. “And I’ll tell it better if I actually see the sweat shining on your brow. I’ll know if it’s from exhaustion, or nerves, or if you’re a little scared.”
“Lies!” Lancylot’s eye twitched. Worn too thin to play the games expected of him, Gawain knew his face was already darkening. He started the confrontation as a weak desperate child, so all he could do was shout the truth and glean information from the older knight’s reaction. “You sent yourself here, knowing I cannot win this game. You came to see me die, so that you may exaggerate my failures with every telling.”
“What are these accusations of heartlessness? You can’t have forgotten that we are brothers.”
“You have never been my brother; that is why I know it’s safe to say anything I want at this moment. Should I not return you will lay claim to my tale and make me out to be the worst knight in the history of the table. Nothing I can accuse you of is worse than what you’ll actually do.” Lancylot licked his lips. The man was no scholar, but there were times when you could see the thoughts racing through the stone block of his head, conclusions being reached only because a desired outcome had not occurred as imagined.
“I am not to blame if you have resigned yourself to failure. You know the queen asked me, personally, to tell you that you are in her prayers. She didn’t have to of course… I hear them as she whispers them at the side of the bed. I have intimate knowledge of how much she cares for you. Thinks of you almost as a son.”
“And there’s the truth,” Gawain growled, his words like lead weights pierced onto the tip of his tongue. “So confident you are that I will fail, that you do more than insinuate your betrayal of the king. You covet his wife… and you can’t contain your glee at doing so.”
“Covet? Why would I covet something I already have?” He finished his drink and slammed it on the ring table. The green fellow must’ve magically refilled one of the goblets earlier, because he kept checking to see if it had more to offer. It was all the more insulting to Sir Gawain to see him preoccupied with it, sliding it in circles to see if he could make a slosh appear.
“How did you even find this place?”
“Gringolet’s trail is very distinct. She’s a horse for… a very specific kind of rider.”
“I won’t have you at my game. It’s my trial. My effort. You did nothing to earn an audience.”
“Don’t get hysterical,” Lancylot mocked with scrunched eyes and a pouting lip. “The green knight has already told me it is a private affair, and perverse as he is this is still his castle. I will wait here until you are finished. I’ll know everything I need to know by whether you come back on your own two legs or draped over the back of that green horse of his. Now if you’ll excuse me, our gracious host has dared me to eat that snake.”
The creature pulled from a green nostril slithered by, and Lancylot pounced on it, crashing through plates as he crawled across the ring table. Fresh guests erupted in laughter at his antics, but Gawain just stared at his vacated seat. The callous knight didn’t even notice that he had crushed its original occupant.
The young knight reached down and lifted it, but not so much as to break its stem. The smashed flower was soft lavender, its texture reminding him of someone. That was how delicate her skin looked once she was content, a happiness she had found not in the Green Chapel, but in herself. With a quick glance around the table he confirmed that had been her seat on the previous nights. Bonnet.
How could death come to her? He thought she would become one of the overstayed, as none that content could have a drop of fear in their hearts. What had the green knight done to her, a woman who clearly posed no threat to anyone? He plucked it and tucked it into his clothes. Her spirit would be with him: another woman to make him brave while the looming men sharpened their axes and tongues.
And so the fated day came and found Gawain alone and quiet on the edge of his bed, unsure of the moment where he had woken. To his throbbing heart a false start seemed likely, a dream that simply looked like the room. A safe place where none could reach him. There were no snails, damsels, or lizards to prove otherwise.
Gawain tapped his stomach, feeling the press of the green girdle against his skin. Though his room seemed empty of spies he hadn’t removed it or looked at it even once to ensure nothing could see. The Green Lady’s honesty was his only hope. With closed eyes and held breath he returned to their time under the fountain, scouring her movements for any sign of treachery. None to be found.
When he stepped out there was no one to escort him or say goodbye. No Bertylak. No Lady Hautdesert. They were truly only interested in the version they could manipulate, the one with enough hopeful flame to fan. There was a small blessing in the form of Lancylot’s absence; he was probably sleeping like a babe, indifferent to the results of the day.
The ax had taunted him again by not setting down roots in the room, despite being leaned with its blade up and trunk down. The vile thing considered their journey ongoing, a restful sleep only possible in the flesh of Gawain’s cozy nape. The young knight picked it up and let the heavy thing rest on his shoulder. Aside from it he had his shield, the green lady’s gift, the ogre’s eye tucked away, and the five fingers and toes of each hand and foot, all trembling, that the queen had claimed made him just as sturdy as the pentangle.
Outside his room there was a guiding trail of flowers, lusher than ever before, and this time they were lavender. They grew and shrank with such speed that it looked like ripples, though none of them wilted or dropped a single petal. The trail’s exact shape undulated back and forth, giving it the look of a single living thing, like a swimming serpent.
He followed it through the castle, his footsteps the loudest sound. Not a single bug chirped, and there was no snoring from any of the guests. The silence was oppressive, and unbelievable given the mirth and anger around the ring table each night. There should’ve been enough echoes and residual spirit from it to make something ring or toll in the air, but it had all been retracted back into the shell like the soft foot of a clam.
A few turns down the lavender put him before the open leafy gate that had ushered him in just days ago, though it felt like a miserable squirming lifetime as a worm on a submerged hook. The air outside couldn’t be called fresher, the greenery inside the chapel never smelled foul, but there was a certain worldliness to it that was a relief. There was too much air outside for all of it to be the green knight’s breath.
It occurred to him for the first time that, though he was ordered to the Green Chapel, he did not have to die there. The fellow had some other place in mind. The lavender started again just past the gate, and Gringolet was there munching on its edges. She raised her head at his approach nonchalantly, her saddle and reins as neat as the day they’d left.
“These might be the last words I say to a friendly soul,” he whispered in her ear as he stroked her neck. She allowed it, but gave no indication that her soul was friendlier than any other. Perhaps she was bothered by him, only finding pleasure in the return trips with nothing weighing her down: a time where she could pretend to be wild. “It no longer matters if I die with dignity, so I must live. I must do as my king ordered and return his property to him. It is blood. It is precious to Logrys, even if its vessel is not.”
He set off upon her back, bothering her with the reins when he couldn’t decide on the appropriate speed to march to his gallows. As such the ride took the better part of the morning, the forest thinning as they went until they found open hills and fields with exposed rock extrusions, like bone finally rupturing mummified skin.
They must’ve been at the edge of the green knight’s influence, for while the grass was still lush and green he could feel a distinct chill in the air: winter nipping at the border. He tried to slow more, but Gringolet wouldn’t allow it. Either he moved at her pace or he would walk like a peasant. He took his hands off the reins and instead held the ax across his lap.
Ravenous fear compelled him to place his thumb flat on the bottom of the blade. Gringolet was too skilled a horse, not allowing any bumps in the path to jostle him and cut his skin. If she had he could’ve called it an accident and kept his faith. Instead he had to press it in himself and see if blood was drawn.
Nothing. His breath caught. Could it really be true that he was impervious? Harder he pressed, unable to believe the sensation of the pressure. His eyes confirmed it, as they saw his thumb skin swell around the edge like rising bread. It still did not cut. Gawain pulled a thread from his clothes and pinched it over the blade. It snapped with hardly any pressure, seeming weaker than a mouse’s whisker. The ax was alive enough to never need the grinding wheel.
“My lady, you have saved me,” he muttered in the whipping wind. “You should be my wife… but I never could bring a creature such as you back. Where could we live? Here? Between the kingdoms where the magic is just loud enough to turn away the superstitious and weak of heart.” He smirked. “Children neither green or white, but looking seasick all the day.”
Gringolet stopped, prompting him to finally look up from his peculiar fantasies. They were surrounded by rock, but not the natural faces rubbed across the hills. These were shaped into large bricks, standing as walls and pillar that never quite joined into a ceiling. The ruin of another castle, smaller than the Green Chapel he was sure, though he couldn’t quantify exactly how big the chapel had been.
The lavender ended there, so the young knight dismounted and thanked Gringolet a final time before walking further into the ruin. The cold was under his clothes now, but the metal girdle didn’t sting against his bare skin. It ignored the chill entirely, instead matching his natural warmth like a pie heating itself before the oven. Gawain found his confidence returning, so he called out.
“Green fellow, where are you? The hair on my neck has grown unkempt; I would appreciate it if you would trim it for me.” There was no answer, so he rounded a corner. With enough layers between him and the world now to make them invisible to each other, Gawain wandered from broken gray chamber to crumbled slate hall. There was nothing left but the shell: no furniture, no rusted utensils, and no moldering rugs.
He picked up and tossed a pebble; it bounced off a wall and disappeared in the grass. Gawain sighed and went to retrieve it, but when his hand was a breath away the spot erupted into a leafy stalk: a geyser of life. It wanted to collapse under its own weight, bending and folding, but something underneath forced it up to where the ceiling should have been. The plant groaned from the swelling pressure like a calf suddenly weighed down by tremendous horns. The leaves fanned out with bright veins of purple, creating shade over him. Not a pebble after all, but a seed.
Auhauhauhauhauhauhauhauhauhauhauh! Other stalks erupted around him, faster than he could spin to see. Vines flooded the seams of the bricks, first matching their grid but then overflowing until the stone was lost underneath. He dared not touch the walls, lest the tendrils snag him and wrap him up like a spider’s meal.
With the walls growing and the grass under his feet swelling into woody shrubs, he was corralled out of the shrinking hallway and into a much larger room. He had walked by it before and thought nothing of it, for it was just as empty as every other space and there was no roof to indicate its original dimensions.
The undergrowth, quickly becoming the overgrowth, changed all that. Woody pews grew, their arms curling into tight spirals that exploded at the center into colorful blooms. Saplings became mighty as they climbed over the stone, some of their branches seeming to brace themselves against the rubble and push it deeper into the ground. The din of it was overwhelming, like spring and summer passing in moments, crammed into the pocket of the ear. Like strangling vines growing around the smallest bones hidden away in there.
The higher branches became vaulting, and crops of leaves filled the space between, layering perfectly like lizard scales. The sun was blocked out everywhere, except for at the end of the chamber, where the growth left a perfect space over his head in the shape of a chapel window. The space did fill, but not with green. Something transparent, tinged with amber, spread over it from all sides, the pieces overlapping. At first he thought they held still, but then he heard their thrumming and saw twitching vibration in places.
They had to be the wings of dragonflies, but in order for that to be the case each bug would have to be the size of Gringolet, for the space was covered by just ten wings. This window, of naturally stained glass, forced the truth on him. This was the Green Chapel the fellow always meant, separate from Castle Hautdesert.
Though the chamber was fully shaped, the sounds of growth didn’t die down entirely. The walls were still moving, clover, moss, wort, and fern growing in the rippling way of the lavender. Fresh leaf layers tiled over their brethren in the ceiling in waves. The pews creaked and moaned like the chairs aboard a veteran sailing ship.
The green fellow clapped from the front, sitting in the pew just before the winged window, amused by a process he’d surely seen many times prior. How he had appeared in the room was a mystery to Gawain, but his eyes had been darting about in confusion the entire time like deer in a lightning gale. When his applause ended and his laughter faded he stood and turned to face him, leaving the aisle clear for him to approach the altar.
“Welcome to my home,” he boomed as the young knight approached. “Magnificent isn’t it?”
“This place… is it Anwynn?”
“Yes.” He took a step back. “No.” The green fellow removed his coat of green fur and stretched his bare shoulders. He threw the article upon the ground, and in moments it was swallowed up by the endless motion of the plants. “This is a little place shared by both worlds, like children sharing a toy. It is the gateway by which I came to be in the realm of men, from whence I set out to play my games.” He held out his hand as Gawain reached his side, expecting the ax. Gawain handed it over.
“Your home is always like this? The green never settles, never sleeps in the sun like it’s supposed to.”
“My home is more alive than yours. In Anwynn death is so swift that we never notice it. Your men try to honor it, give it a special seat at the table and drape a black cloak over it as if it’s some venerable elder who knows best. For us it is the bumbling bug that flies into your face and gets swatted away. Whatever it will do it will do, and we simply run, faces to the wind, ignoring its attempts at obstruction.”
“Death at your hand is no honor,” Gawain partly agreed, “but that matters not. Take your swing and be done with it, so I may be done with you.” The Green knight obeyed a little too quickly, swinging the ax straight at his cheek. Gawain ducked and fell only to realize a moment later that it was a practice swing. The fellow walked back and forth, swinging it with a single hand, its blade and even its handle audibly cutting the air. “You’re allotted only one strike and it is to be at my neck!”
“And so it will be, but you needn’t rush,” the green knight chided. He plunged the ax into the earth, and while it stuck the constant wriggling of the Anwynn floor made it wobble. In just three strides he towered over Gawain, still sat. Without warning he reached down, lifted Gawain’s shirt, and ripped the green girdle off him.
“No!” he cried like a child, but it didn’t stop the man from tossing it away. The growth consumed it just as it had the coat, and with it the young knight’s confidence and hopes. “What is the meaning of this!? That was mine! We did not strip you of your clothes and belongings when you rode so brazenly into Camylot!”
“There was nothing on me that belonged to King Arthyr.”
“That belt was mine! Given to me by-”
“The green lady?” Gawain gulped. “No need to deny, as no one else could have given it to you.”
“Given it was! You are a thief!”
“Oh? Tell me, if this was given to you, should it not have been given to Bertylak in turn? Instead you peppered the man with kisses and kept this all to yourself. A shameful thing to do, by the standards of your king anyway.” Gawain’s face reddened. Hot tears welled up and fell. It was to end this way after all; there was no exaggeration Lancylot could perform that would make him seem worse than he was.
“It was mine…”
“It never was,” the green man argued. “She only had it because I allowed it. It is my possession, and I can reclaim it as I see fit regardless of how far it wanders. Now, on your knees sir Gawain.” The man pointed at the altar, which grew a curve of wood with smooth gray bark: the perfect item upon which to rest his head.
Gawain crawled forward, salting the earth with his tears, though they made no difference to the mindless ravenous weeds. The fellow reclaimed his ax and met the young man at the altar’s side. Green toes snuck under the bent boy and kicked the shield away. It too sank in the lake of foliage. With his last effort Gawain tried to put his own head upon the chopping block, but the green man reached down, hand wrapping entirely around his neck, and pulled him the rest of the way as if his was the neck of a dead goose.
“Would you like to usher in our game with some words?” he asked. “Something for your king and queen to remember you by?”
“No,” he squeaked. “It would be b-better if I was forgotten. P-please, don’t let them remember me. Let me be anything but shame, even n-nothing.”
“Very well. Here I go.” The man grunted unnecessarily as he heaved the ax over his head. Gawain shut his eyes, creating black to keep green from being his final color. He held his breath and dove into his heartbeat, seeking refuge from the emotional maelstrom battering him. Hyaaah! Down it came. He heard its passage, and he couldn’t stop himself from flinching and yelping. Yet it did not strike him. His right eye, the one aimed at the rippling ceiling, popped open and saw the flat expanse of the blade, halted just a hair from his skin. “You flinched! Auhauhauhauhauhauh! Are you afraid? That’s fine you know; it isn’t against the rules.” With no room to wriggle out from under the blade, Gawain could do nothing but protest.
“Even in my defeat you gloat. What makes you so cruel as to treat me this way? It took everything I had in my heart to make it here! I am spent! I am lost! Yet still open to your attacks?”
“I don’t believe it was quite the effort you make it out to be,” the green knight said skeptically. “What you’ve done is visit spring in the middle of winter, enjoy incredible feasts, and even had the comfort of a woman.” With the repossession of the belt, Gawain had forgotten his vengeance completely.
“That’s right! And I tell you it wasn’t just those kisses. It was the ultimate prize! And I found it in the sweating space between your wife’s waist and mine! The green lady was my companion in all this, denying you at every turn and rewarding me. She knows who I am, and she knows me inside better than you ever will, no matter how good a view you have down the stump of my neck! So strike! I’ve already had all there is to have.”
The fellow had nothing to say to the young man’s claims, but Gawain could hear the heavy breath in his flared nostrils. Anger. He had succeeded in making the green man admit the game wasn’t friendly. It was an evil plot to rob Camylot of one of its finest upcoming knights.
Hyaah! The ax went up again and Gawain closed his eyes. He made himself feel the embrace of the green lady; in his darkness he saw her drowning expression. It was as her husband said. The death did not bother her. It worked on her without her permission, yet it couldn’t touch her will. Even vacant of life they had made incredible joy, felt closeness across boundaries never meant to allow even a hand across. Perhaps he could reach out to her from beyond and tell her that he wasn’t bothered either. That he had peace.
Down came the ax with force enough to fell a mighty tree. The wind from it blasted throughout the chapel, disturbing the roof and walls, though the mussed leaves were back in order a moment later. The blood of the Pendragynn line glistened on the blade, flowing upward into the pits in the metal.
Gawain’s arms hung limply. His body kept its balance and his head stayed upon the branch. The pain had been a shock… but only in the way it lingered. The moment of death stretched on and on, the young knight lamenting that he could feel every vein snap and bone crack. Agonizingly aware of every drop of blood rolling down the sides of his neck.
Something struck after the ax. A thought. An impossible thought for a dead man. The thought that it wasn’t every vein bursting, but just one. The thought that his skin suffered, but little else. The thought that his bone was actually intact. All at once Gawain stood and backed away. His hand jumped to his nape and came back with a smear of blood, but that was all. Just a smear. He felt an ordinary sting. A simple cut hardly worthy of a bandage. Under the pressure of his hand he felt a few grains of grit from the blade, but nothing else intrusive.
“That… that was your one swing.”
“A direct hit,” the green fellow said, beaming. He thrust the ax into the ground, but it didn’t just stick this time. The spiraling wood of its handle widened and split into its two branches with a snap and a puff of sawdust. The blade fell out and sank in the greenery while the remnants grew leaves and became unrecognizable as anything other than a sapling.
“I’m alive. Alive.” Gawain touched all of his limbs to make sure they were still attached. “I don’t understand. What was the point of all this if not to humiliate me and take my head?”
“The humiliation can continue if it’s still attached.” Gawain turned away, but the fellow raised his voice. “Do wait a moment Sir Gawain, though you are under no obligation to do so. I have more to share with you.” The young knight watched, utterly bewildered as to how such a farce could continue.
The man didn’t actually have anything to say at that moment, something to show instead. He took a breath so deep that all the vegetation of the chapel swayed in his direction, the wings of the giant dragonflies even forced to break their window formation. His chest swelled and groaned like an old oak in the wind.
Gawain expected a gale on exhale, and while their surroundings returned to normal there wasn’t any force to push them in the other direction. The only thing affected was the green knight himself; as the breath left his body he shrank. With his size went his color, as well as the fullness of his hair and muscles. Left behind when the breath was spent was Bertylak de Hautdesert: shirtless, panting, and obliviously cheery.
“Bertylak!?” Though he still had his head, Gawain’s blood felt like it was flooding out all the same. “You are the green knight! Is it some kind of glamour?” A memory came back to him, of Bertylak by the icy stream conversing with the green fellow. He had clearly spied both of them there. He couldn’t be.
“Oh, we’re in the chapel,” Bertylak said as he looked about. “I take it I have been revealed then! How is your neck Gawain? I hope he didn’t play too rough with you.” The man walked over and swiped his hand across Gawain’s neck, but the cut was so shallow that the blood was already clotting. “You took it well.”
“I don’t understand. I saw you with him! You were separate from your transformation; how can this be!?” Bertylak didn’t answer, instead taking a step back. With a cavernous open smile he inhaled and became the green knight once more.
“Your friend won’t be able to explain it as well as I can,” the fellow claimed. “He wasn’t present for much of it. Lost in the euphoria I provide him while he is my guest.”
“Guest…” Gawain muttered. “I take it you have a very different meaning for that word.”
“Auhauhauhauh! Not so different. He enjoys the hospitality of my magics, safe from harm, and comfortable as can be. I am not a green man, but a green spirit of Anwynn. I can inhabit anything I desire, but my spirit is stronger than the delicate ones of this world. Joining with a body here makes it grow and change to accommodate me.”
“Your size and your rotten color.” The fellow, for the first time, let Gawain see him look wounded.
“Would you call it rotten if it was the green lady standing here? Her hue is identical.”
“My lady… This means she is a spirit as well?”
“Yes. With a guest of her own. We have many. If you saw me with Bertylak it simply means I was entertaining another instead of him.” Gawain thought back. He hadn’t seen the fellow’s face when he was bathing in the stream; it was obscured in the flow of the small waterfall he lounged in. This led him to consider the difference in the first green face seen in Camylot and the one before him now. Different guests. Different people.
There was too much to remember. Gawain backed away further, but he bumped into a pew and fell onto it. He closed his eyes as if in prayer, sifting through the last three days for the vein of sense that had to be present.
Every green thing he’d seen had to be one of these fey spirits, be it the fellow, his wife, or a third like the horse he had rode into Camylot astride. The snail staring at him on the previous morning. Was it him, intimidating? Or her, checking on his well-being? Even the illusion where the green had overcome the virgin mother’s portrait was one of them.
Worse still, this meant that Bertylak had never cheated in their game. Every green beast he felled, the stag, Rynard, and the boar, had been brought back and dutifully presented, just after the green spirit had vacated and turned the carcass back to normal. Gawain was the only one that had broken it. The dyeing of those animals had been just to add sport to the hunt, and when the green knight had accompanied Bertylak in the mornings it had been as prey rather than adversary.
“You tried to kill me,” Gawain accused without lifting his head. “When you were the boar.”
“Just as you tried to kill me!” he countered. “That is the game of the hunt. All was fair. I admired your effort.”
“As did I,” a new voice claimed, speaking up from five pews behind. Gawain swiveled and saw the crone with the rings sitting there, a hood over her face, an ill-fitting smile sticking to her teeth.
“This was to be a private game!” the young knight protested, standing and approaching her down the aisle. “You choose now to speak, without ever giving your name?” His reaction was too quick, already on the attack before recognizing that such a woman could not produce the voice he heard out of her. There was no crack, no warble of age. It was a voice as determined as his own, and more confident.
The woman stood, her height giving Gawain pause. Now she was as tall as he, where before she had been so bent that her back could’ve held a few goblets in place. She pulled off her hood, and, just as cloth-like, her visage of age. One of the rings glimmered as its illusion broke. Left behind was a face Gawain had seen before. A member of his own family. Half-sister to King Arthyr. Morgyn Lyfey.
“Witch! No wonder I was confounded. This scheme is entirely your doing.” He looked back at the green knight. “He is your servant, conjured from the other realm to do your bidding, to break the ranks of Camylot!”
“I am no servant!” the fellow boomed from behind, tearing Gawain’s focus in half. “She opened this gate, allowing me to explore the realm of men, and for that I am forever grateful, but this game was both of ours. I sought friends and found them. Love as well.” The fellow’s expression pressed on the young knight’s spirit, a deeply uncomfortable feeling. Why were his eyes so soulful, so invested now that his stroke was gone?
“You don’t even have a name to offer any friends!” he accused.
“That spirit has a name,” Morgyn claimed, drawing a befuddled look from both of them.
“I do?” the fellow asked.
“Yes, you just keep forgetting. You are called Bredbedyl by the people of this world.”
“Names!” the fellow cursed. “Never can keep a hold of many of them, but I remember yours Gawain, clearer than hers even.”
“Morgyn,” the witch reminded.
“That’s right! Auhauhauhauhauhauh! Some are just for men and others just for women, yes? I think that’s what gets my mind tangled. How did they manage to give me one name when I am both so often?” Gawain’s heart felt as if it stopped. Even painted pictures were vulnerable to the fellow’s possession, so of course nothing stopped him from claiming man or woman. And with every new guest the spirit had a different body and a different face. The fey thing knew about the girdle, information that would not be difficult to acquire if it had been the one to bestow it.
“It cannot be,” Gawain whispered, his throat made of paper. His hands shook. He looked around for his shield, for the rigidness of the pentangle or the roar of the horned lion, anything to stabilize him or overpower him in the name of his protection. They were of course gone, swallowed up by the unstable ground. The young knight dropped to his knees, sending ripples through the ferns.
There was nowhere he could look without seeing the green. Ferns between his knees arced in and out of the ground like burrowing snakes. One leaf became two, became four, became moss. Nothing was solid. The tickle of the earth’s tendrils on his thighs clearly stated that it could drown him, but chose not to. The fellow’s hand slid across his shoulder, and despite the broadness of the palm he recognized the touch.
“I don’t fit inside your promises,” the fellow whispered in his ear, kneeling down next to him. “The treasure I gave you did as I said. When I pulled it off you just now I knew that you trusted me, that our love was more important to you than vows made to people eager to hear of your death. Having it here now saved you, as I could only strike you as much as I hated you. All the blood that fell was for your loyalty to the king. All the blood that remains is for us.”
“Who?” Gawain asked. “Who was your guest as the green lady? Who did I actually share that fountain with?”
“Names,” the green fellow mumbled again, scratching at his hair for the seed of information.
“I was watching you much of the time Gawain,” Morgyn interjected. “I do not believe you and her ever spent any time alone. She did give you something though, at the dinner table. A piece of paper.” Gawain thought back, but the memory was right there with him. Bonnet’s love letter to herself was currently tucked in his clothes, its edge touching the skin over his heart. In all the miserable plotting he had forgotten to read it.
“So Bonnet was my lover,” the young knight said. He tried to stand, but his legs quivered and sent him falling back into one of the pews. The growth didn’t like the weight of his emotions, making it known by having the pew sink under him, its other end partly uprooting and filling the air with the smell of deep moist loam. “Where is she? Is she…” She wasn’t. However he had planned on finishing that sentence, she wasn’t, and he knew it.
She was dead and gone, as the lavender in her seat had made clear. He already knew the manner of her death. She had drowned in the fountain, her body convulsing against his, all the air given for his pleasure. The green lady had kept the body moving and talking, just as when the spirit picked up its own head at the round table, but the guest had vacated.
“You killed her!” he accused them both, but he hadn’t the strength to fight them.
“She came here to die,” the fellow clarified, again looking bruised. How dare he!? How dare he act the vulnerable one!? “She heard tales of the revels here, and her request to the overstayed was that she die in utter ecstasy, so as to not even notice it. Back in her home she was owned by men, and she believed the only way to be free was to leave their world.”
“Suicide with you as puppet master!?” Gawain sputtered. “I take it I am the ecstasy!?”
“Your company was vital, and she was very appreciative in the final moments and before, but the love was ours Gawain,” the green fellow assured, deep yet soft voice tunneling further in him with each word.
“Why!?” he cried out, but the one god could not see him through such a roof or hear him through the constant rustling. His head whipped back to the witch. “Why do any of this to me? Why humiliate me by tricking me into taking a man to bed? You despise Arthyr so much, and he is so immune to your efforts, that you have to go after me instead!”
“Bite your tongue,” the witch demanded, throwing up a few fingers in a gesture suggesting a hex that could actually make his teeth sever it. “You’re a child; don’t flatter yourself. My aim in sending Bredbedyl to your castle was no grand plan. I wanted only to horrify your soft sensitive queen.”
“She did look peakish with the blood spattered on her,” the green fellow recalled. Morgyn laughed at that, stroking her own cheek, enjoying its softness without the elderly disguise. Her laugh was a deeply satisfied purr, like a cat figuring out how to use its own furry flank as a cushion.
“That was all I wanted,” she insisted. “Gwenyvyr is no queen, as you can’t deserve a crown without wading through blood, at least some of it innocent. Everything that came after was uncoordinated. Bredbedyl picked you, presumably because he likes your company, as he likes the company of every guest he brings back here, where he is freest.”
“That I do… You were talking about me, yes?” the fellow asked. “I’m the Bred-beetle?” Morgyn rolled her eyes affectionately and nodded. Turning back to Gawain, she saw him panting, the Cyclipse’s eye gripped in both hands. He pointed it toward them, ready to burn his fingers off if it meant setting their lips ablaze. The cut on his neck tingled; he still felt that bit of grit under the skin. Was it bigger now, or did his whole hide just feel too tight?
“I am most curious where you got that,” Morgyn said. “Properly cut, that stone would make an excellent addition to my collection.” She held up all her fingers and their rings. They all sparkled now, like an audience applauding.
“This ogre’s eye has nearly killed me, so it can do the same to you,” Gawain threatened. He stood, allowing the pew to slowly sink back to stability. As he spoke he shuffled down the side of the aisle, toward the way out. “Alone its enchantment is a burden; how do you survive with a chorus of magic rings?”
“Simple devotion,” she answered. “I do not let them touch each other. No finger has touched any of its neighbors in years, so the magics do not conflict. Such mastery requires that my use of them be disjointed, that my plans and partners be allowed to flow freely by each other in currents even I do not fully understand. Hence the toying that had to be done once I realized Bredbedyl had brought a knight of the round table to our sanctuary.”
“A sanctuary for villainy!” he screeched. “That won’t exist much longer!” He couldn’t throw the eye against the ground and stomp it, as it would simply sink, so he smashed it against the side of one of the pews as hard as he could, dropping it immediately. The impact created a blinding white light and left a black eclipse scorched into the side of the pew. Gawain was gone, having bolted from the chamber, by the time the sorceress picked up the cooling orb and lightly blew the last wisp of smoke from its surface.
The chapel proved every bit as deceptive as the castle itself, refusing to give his memories credence. Walls of vines had erected and changed the shape of every room and hallway. He thought fresh air and stark sun would give him back his nerve, but he had to find it in that cursed tangle.
“I will make it back!” he promised himself. “I will tell them of this, and return with the entire table. We’ll burn it all to the ground. I’ll empty that fountain and fill it with fire! Not a soul will ever know!” He leapt over a mossy bulge only to see Bredbedyl standing on the other side, imploring him with open arms.
“Don’t go Gawain. I tried to show you the erring path you were on. These bloody games are what the men of your world want. Remember how your king did not deny me. I broke the game’s spirit to keep you alive. The rules, the oaths, the virtues… they’re all nothing if they devalue your spirit. They punish you for feeling, and they make you into a trapped squirming liar.”
“You’re the liar!” Gawain screamed, fighting the inexplicable urge to give in and embrace the fellow. His bare chest looked soft and welcoming, and it was true that after such a soft stroke there was no way his aim was to harm the knight physically. “You… You made me think I was loved, all the while spitting venom, nothing but water, at your husband. Are you going to tell me that you hate yourself?”
“I did hate that man! He was false. He was arrogant. He respected a few others, but liked only himself. He was the only man who could get you here, because you would listen to no other. Please, you do not know what will become of you if you go back.”
“There is nowhere to go but back!” Gawain turned and ran again. He found a room full of colorful flat beetles, each a painting crawling over a hundred others. There was laughter between their skittering. Fairies? Other fey creatures? This was supposedly a gate to Anwynn after all. Any door he found might permanently trap him there, which started him thinking. There was one other door he always carried with him, but was any situation desperate enough to use it purposefully?
Past the beetles he found a room of earwigs, and there was screeching under their masses rather than laughter. This flight was only taking him deeper, into the shadowy rotted under-logs of Anwynn. Soon he might find black magic, the magic of the dead and decaying. It would feed off him more than anything else had, and leave only a husk behind.
The young knight doubled back, thankful the halls hadn’t changed in the short time he’d been fleeing. It would let him get back to the chapel. With no possible way to defeat the green fellow’s immortal body or Morgyn’s many magics, there was only one life he could think to take without a horde of other fey things interfering.
When he made it back Morgyn was still standing there as if she’d expected his return. There was a new necklace draped over her bosom: beads of obsidian holding a cloudy pearl. No. The eye. Already she had transformed it into one of her tools, somehow shrinking it and setting it on a chain. The only reason it wasn’t on a finger was that she had none left to spare. When she knew he was watching she grasped it in the tips of her fingers and watched a scene play out inside: the death of the Cyclipse at his hands.
“So brave,” she cooed. “Are you sure you won’t turn that bravery to the service of a real queen? You and I share blood after all. I feel responsible for many of the things Arthyr does.” Gawain had no retort, only a plan. He rushed past her, keeping the pews between them, so he could get to the chapel window and its glass of dragonfly wings. She took his flight as a refusal, dropping the eye and conjuring a green fireball in her palm.
The green fire would burn the flesh of men until only bone remained while doing nothing to the forest, so she unleashed it in a wide swath over the wooden pews and hanging ferns with abandon. Gawain ducked under them and crawled, his hands grabbed back by things just under the cluttered weeds. They were not strong enough to hold him though, and he made it to the altar, leaping and stepping on it to reach the window’s edge.
He snatched one of the wings making up the ornate designed and tugged. The flies disbanded and buzzed away, breaking their artwork, but not the one he had a hold of. Gawain yanked and dragged until the rest of it appeared and it fell with him to the chapel floor, legs scrambling and head twitching back and forth.
Its tail was as long and thick as a spear, gripped tightly in both his hands while he had its head under his boot. The buzzing of its wings nearly knocked him off his feet, but its life was his only window for escape.
“You shouldn’t be so eager to leave us behind,” Morgyn warned. “Bredbedyl will not lie to you anymore, which is more than can be said for my brother.”
“And what of your lies!?”
“The best tool available in a world of fools.” Her smile was not wicked, but sure. The green fire died between her glittering fingers as if she’d already won. Gawain could only hope she hadn’t guessed his purpose. Where he was headed was a place women couldn’t go, he was sure of it, made as it was of the cold airless space between men.
The knight dove into his worst fears, forcing himself into a kneel before an imaginary Camylot court. Every pair of eyes judged him harshly, finding him lacking so glaringly in all virtues that it was as obvious as a man falling over because he lacked the fingers and toes to properly kneel.
He pulled what felt like a rope around his stinging neck, but it was the dragonfly’s head that popped off. Fully prepared he was for its continued scrambling, that was the way of beheaded bugs, but it had stopped the moment it was severed. Gawain looked at his empty hands, and then at the empty chapel around him. It wasn’t a chapel anymore, back to rubble and ruin.
The sky was gray, like rain refusing to fall, and his flesh matched it. The grass under his feet was the most lifeless he’d ever seen, only there enough to see. Lossys. Relief flooded his spirit as he staggered away. This place was failure, but without a single pair of eyes to judge. No more leaves rustling. No more bugs skittering. No more Auhauhauhauhauhauh! His ordeal was over, and he needed only to find a way out far from those ruins.
At the crumbling archway leading back to the empty fields he found a companion, one who had already judged, leaning up against the stone in his dark cloak. It was the ghost of Sir Uriel again, but he did not lift his hood to look at Gawain. He did not speak until the younger knight passed by him.
“You should not have come back here,” he scolded.
“I had no choice… if you want your father to know your fate.”
“This place is not for you, and I can’t be so kind this time. There needs to be punishment for using it.”
“What more can be done to me?”
“Now you must bear another truth, one that you must decide whether to reveal or withhold. One that I would’ve spared you if you’d been big enough to fight them.” Gawain was well past him, but stopped. He didn’t turn; this truth would have to break on his back. “A woman drowned while you fraternized with the green monster. Before that, a head rolled while you did much the same. My head.”
Gawain was silent, but it had struck like the whip. The guest of the Green Knight brought to Camylot and used for their game was his fellow knight. Gleefully he had split his friend’s head from his body, sprayed the queen with his blood.
“The fellow had you…” he whispered.
“I met him on my travels,” Uriel explained, “and he challenged me to a game. The reward was the other’s head. It was foolish of me to accept, and not just because I had no idea how he intended to take my head: bouncing on my thigh as he rode out of Camylot on a green horse.”
“I am your murderer.”
“And in the end you will tell my father that. Or you won’t.” They were silent for a time, and with no sun Lossys wouldn’t tell them how long it was. The shadows were inside them instead of stretched across the ground. The young knight thought back to Uriel’s advice, wondering whether or not his attempts to be resourceful had helped him at all. Only his honest swim with the green lady had kept him alive.
“You’re assuming I ever get out of here at all Sir Uriel. I came here to deny them their purposes with me, whatever they were. Beyond that accomplishment I am still lost. As dead as you.”
“You are not the green monster’s victim,” Uriel growled. “And nor was I. Hubris made me take his challenge. I confused it for chivalry. You’re the one vulnerable to his friendship. You still have something to prove to the court… and you have a way out of here.”
“No! The twice that I have escaped I was able to return to the exact spot where life was dropped or left. The ogre’s hole and where the bird was left under the table. That fly I killed is in their chapel. If I go back from there I’ll be right where I started, in the grip of dagger-toothed fairies most likely, in the embrace of-”
“Each time you came here on your own, merely borrowing another’s passage and refusing to travel to the end destination. You don’t even need to borrow this time, for it has been given. Put your hand to your heart.”
“Would you have me swear something els-” Gawain barked, but stopped when he obeyed and felt paper against his skin. He pulled out Bonnet’s love letter. The affirmation of a real woman. The warmth of a heart that would never snuff out in Lossys. A secret that allowed her to die happily, acknowledging a world out of her control and a life fully in it. “How does this-” He turned, but Uriel was gone.
Gawain walked on, unfolding the letter and reading.
Too long it has taken me to come forward and tell you how I love you. They told me we could not have each other, that you belonged to everyone else like a crop of gnat-traveled fruits sitting out at the market. People are to consume you piece by piece, but you will stay whole by taking from then in turn.
We both know the flaw. Those men would take more than their fair share, and as they bloat they think every added weight is purely them, and so need to take even more. Their consumption is endless, and nothing can satisfy because they do not love themselves.
We are whole as we are. We need not them or their ways, all artifacts and poisons in medicine bottles. I will be true to you now. Your sadness is real, and is not a flaw. Your rage is real, and is no flaw either.
Your tears are the water of life, and as they run down your face you are as the world itself. It is the purest we can be, and no longer will we accept the burden of shame for our feelings.
You are authentic, and I love you. You are desperate, and I love that you can admit to that. You owe nothing to anyone, but I hope that you would forgive me for not realizing it until now. It will be my greatest pleasure to deny them their bites at you, to be the decaying black fruit that only the flies will touch.
You hurt so beautifully. I love you.
Back in the chapel, where it wore Anwynn’s full green regalia, the green fellow reunited with Morgyn lyfey, much of the swelling in Bertylak’s borrowed chest vanishing when he saw that she was alone but for a mangled dragonfly and an empty window. He approached as she casually picked up the bug’s body, peered into the stump where its head had been, and wiggled her fingers until green fire slithered inside and cooked its flesh.
Once it was steaming she dug out moist white pieces of it, like the meat of a crab, and feasted on it, lips smacking. She offered some to Bredbedyl, and he took it, but there was no enthusiasm in his chewing. He dropped into a pew and sulked, head in his hands.
“I’m sorry my friend,” she soothed, “I know you very much wanted him to overstay.”
“I’ll never understand why they don’t.”
“It is their folly. He was no saint in all this. At every turn he could’ve made better decisions, refusing to feel the tug on my brother’s leash, and now they will all pay the price for their suppression.” She dug around in the dragonfly’s cavity aggressively, yet when another chunk of meat came out only the very tips of her fingers glistened. Somehow the rings were still clean, none of the knuckles even in danger of touching despite the cramped space inside her meal.
“It is done then?” Bredbedyl asked. “The seed is planted?” She nodded, staring out the empty window into the shifting lights of the fey realm.
“I told you when we forged that ax that the pits in its blade would contain seeds of our mischief, that they might be planted in any men imbecile enough to put their necks under it for honor.”
“Gawain should not have been the one to bear it.”
“He could have avoid it with ease, by simply breaking his promise to Bertylak and taking this.” The red ring slipped off her finger, spun in her palm, and then, with a flick of her wrist, returned to its snug position. “Even with a planted seed this ring would suppress its growth, and he could keep living as he chose, but he wouldn’t even take that. Now he will be the first sprout of Camylot’s downfall, of the fall of all men as they stand now.”
“Will it cause him any pain? The poor boy can’t handle it.”
“All his pain is self-inflicted,” the witch insisted. “To settle you I well tell you what will happen to him, as I see it through the enchantments. Perhaps it will not happen exactly alike, down to the falling of each hair, but it will come to pass mostly this way.
The Anwynn seed is planted in the cut you made, but he will never notice it, for it will sprout and grow only in his sleep, and only when no eyes are on it, before retreating when the moonlight fades.
Gawain will escape that empty realm with the help of that letter. He will find his horse, who will be surprised to see him, and they will ride back to Bertylak’s castle, where Sir Lancylot will be the most surprised of all. That traitor is easier to read than a last meal in prophetic entrails, so I know he will embrace the boy, smacking him on the back in the hopes of loosening the memories of what he admitted to him.
Together they will go back to my brother, and the celebration will be so grand that Gawain’s doubts will wash away, at least during the day. He will regale them with the story of the adventure, leaving out his own misdeeds, committing only to each point of the round table when it is aimed at his heart. He will learn the game, of swelling his chivalry only when watched, and shrinking more and more when not.
Meanwhile the tree will blossom from his nape when all are asleep. Its seeds will take to the wind of Anwynn even though they cannot feel it, and spread to the fear-fertilized necks of every man around him, and so will come to be a part of every noble man.
And I say again they will feel no pain beyond their own, but they will be forced to feel it for the first time. Anwynn is life with no respite, no peace, no ability to be alone. When it is part of men they cannot retreat into that cold empty place Gawain currently walks, which they all know but never admit to each other.
Lossys it is called, and they all think they invented that name themselves. It is Anwynn’s shadow, cool where it is warm and quiet where it titters and purrs. It is where men destroy themselves…
but with these seeds planted, with Anwynn in them, they will no longer be able to go there. They will have to face themselves in full view of their peers, and their women. They will face judgment much harsher than that of other men.
They will lash out violently, and all will see what has been at the core of this chivalry all along. Misery. By that time we will be long gone from this world. Time will have marched them to the cliff, and tremendous damage will have been done by their childish outbursts. But it will be seen by all. And it will change. And it tickles me to know that so few will learn, instead collapsing into murder and oppression.
Do not fret Bredbedyl. Your guests will always be plentiful, as long as you live there will be a pentangle to escape, and a green wilderness beyond its walls.”
Hony soit qui mal y pense
‘Shame on him who thinks ill of it’
Motto, chivalric Order of the Garter