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Authors: Anne Eliot Crompton

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Three more steps and he met a skull lower down, almost within reach. He started, shivered, stopped. Whispers from the past echoed in his mind. He glanced up at a forest of moon-white skulls. Those at the treetops shone brightest. Lower down hung fresher skulls, dull, flesh-ribboned—as though they were moved up, year by year, to make room, as corpses in a narrow sepulcher are moved down. God’s teeth! “Lady Green!”

“Hurry—”

“Should a Christian man walk this trail?”

“What?” She stopped and turned to him, moonlit eyes amazed at his ignorance. “No one should walk this trail. Sometimes we need to.”

Whose were all these skulls? Surely they were trophies of no battle fought for life and land! The Square Table and all its ilk could hardly manage this.

“Who were all these…people?”

“May Kings. Come!”

May Kings. Kings of Mays stretching back to Noah and the Flood.

Sir, that’s what the first head wanted to tell you. Your head would be next.

Lady Green tugged at Gawain’s hand.

Dread struck a blow that set him swaying.
Gather your forces, Sir!

Anger reddened his vision.

Now you see it! This is what yon red-haired sow planned for you. And that Student Druid. And Old Lady Granny. Satan bless them all!

He strode forward. Bones crunched underfoot.
Careful, Sir. Be not angry, here and now!

“Hush! Slower!” Lady Green restrained him.

He whispered, “Are there guards here?” Behind oak trunks? Why should there be? The crowded skulls should be guards enough.

“Not human guards.”

Horror skittered up and down his backbone, withered his innards.
Sir, we’re in Satan’s Dun itself!

God and Mary, Angel Michael—

Don’t, Sir. Satan might hear you. And he’s closer.

Gawain followed Lady Green into a wide red clearing. Moonlight fell red on red bones, red stones, one huge flat red stone, seemingly drenched in fresh red blood.

Sir, control that anger. You need to see clear.
You need to see clear!

She led him up to the great red stone and paused before it. She let his hand go. She raised both orange hands and her orange face into fading pink light. Her lips moved.

She’s praying to Satan.

If I had a sword—

Sure, you’d slice off her head on the altar. And all the Demons of Hell would shriek on your trail. Whisht, now. Quiet.

Lady Green turned back to Gawain. Pale now, she reached for his hand. “Come.” Carefully, she drew him through red moonlight onto a shaded trail.

Gawain awoke to the
whish
of morning rain on rock.

He came wide awake at once, the way he always had before he ever drank Lady Green’s ale. His side ached. He turned onto his back, which ached more. He opened his eyes to a stone roof arching close over him.

He lay on a stone cave floor with Lady Green. Rain
whished
outside the cave mouth; in here they lay dry. The two cloaks she had brought almost covered them.

She had brought nothing else. No jewelry, no bag of clothes. No arms but the sheathed knife jabbed in her magic girdle. No food. “Baggage might alert suspicion,” she explained last night.

Outside Satan’s Dun they had found one large, brown-bristly pony tethered. “Why not two, at least, in God’s name?”

“Hard enough to get one. These ponies are strong, Love. He’ll carry us both.” And carry them both the pony did, far and fairly fast, southward over moonlit moor.

Softly, now. Gawain sat up. Very gently he lifted his cloak aside and looked down on Lady Green. Deeply she slept, as though the cave rock were a goose-down bed. Sleeping, she smiled.

Last night they had made love. Last night he had given her all that he had withheld before.

Good thing I kept that promise
, Gawain thought.
Since I won’t be keeping the other. At least I gave her that.

He had loosened her magic girdle and tossed it to the left. The green gown went right. His trousers lay crumpled at hand. Her knife fell somewhere…here. Gawain picked it up and tested it on his thumb. Good and sharp.

Lady Green turned toward him. Deep asleep, she drew her cloak up over freckled white shoulders. Her long red hair trailed across their gray stone bed.

God! I could strangle her with that rich red hair! That would be simple justice.

Asleep, she looked innocent and helpless.

Innocent! I saw her pray at Satan’s altar last night!

Helpless! In her woman’s way, this girl’s as strong as I am.

Girl?

Shimmering rain-light showed slack lines in her sleeping face that he had never noticed before.
And gray hair! Holy Mary, gray hairs in the red! I think she’s older than I am. Here I’ve caught her in another lie.

Not a serious lie, Sir. Not like meaning to hang your head on an oak tree.

Why don’t I stab her right now!

Sir, you would not stab an enemy knight, asleep.

That’s true. And after all our nights together…nights whose like may never come again.

This is a very rare girl—woman. I almost love her.

Not surprising, Sir.

Maybe I could…keep my promise?

How, Sir?

Fingering her knife, Gawain brooded over the sleeping Lady Green.
I couldn’t wed this savage. She thought me ignorant. In Arthur’s Dun she would seem a wide-eyed toddler! She brings nothing. Not so much as a pouch of oat crumbs! Now if she’d brought all that jewelry…but no. Even all that wouldn’t be enough to wed.

No. I cannot do it. I must break my promise, though it hurts my heart.

Sir. This is more than an ungallant deed you do here. You break your solemn promise—

A promise to a pagan savage.

You leave a woman asleep on a wild moor, among brigands, Saxons, wolves. A woman who trusts you.

A woman whom I trusted! She can thank her Gods I do not stab her dead.

Will you even take her knife, her only defense?

I will! By the time I reach Arthur’s Dun this knife will be chipped to the handle!

Sir Gawain. What you are doing is unknightly. Dishonorable. Never till now have you stooped to dishonor.

Never have I stood in such a case!

Suppose Arthur learns of it? Angel Michael, Sir! Suppose Merlin learns of it! Imagine the song that bards might sing for a hundred years!

No one will ever know.

You will always know.

And I will always regret! More than the loss of Honor, I will always regret the loss of my Lady Green.

Gawain bent down and over and kissed Lady Green. Deeply she
sighed and wound both arms around his neck. Still sleeping, she returned his kiss.

God’s bones! How can I leave her!

Her arms sank away. Smiling, she resettled herself on the stone floor.

If I had not seen Satan’s Dun with my own eyes…

(High on a trunk, a human head looked down. Green flesh dangled from bared white bone. Eye sockets met Gawain’s shocked eyes. In his heart the head said clearly,
I am you, Sir Gawain, King’s Companion
.)

God’s bones! King Arthur himself would do what I do now!

Very softly he moved away, where Lady Green would not feel his movements. Stooped under the low rock roof, he drew on tunic, trousers, and boots.

Look. There beside her, her famous magic girdle. God’s blood! I’ll wager with that girdle she can call up a Demon to heist her home by the hair!

He worked her knife into the sash of his trousers.

Let the girdle save her now. Witness, Herod’s Holy Innocents, I leave her alive. More than that I cannot do.

He did not look at her as he drew his cloak quietly off her. He did not look back at her as he ducked under the low cave lintel and stood up straight in cold, hard rain. Not far off waited the big brown-bristly pony, hobbled.

Gawain glanced around the rolling, rain-veiled moors.
Far as I can see, nothing. No one. I’ll wager the Square Table fellows haven’t yet noticed we’ve gone!

He glanced back into cave-dimness.
If she stirs…if she calls now…
He swung the cloak over his shoulders.

Sir. Do you not go back and look at her again. Do you not.

Gawain wheeled about and strode through wet to the pony. It raised its rough head and nickered as he whipped off the hobble and reattached it as rein. He found a rock to mount from and climbed onto the pony’s wet-slippery back. One last time he glanced at the low cave entrance. Nothing stirred there. Not even the pony’s greeting had wakened Lady Green.

Sir. I remember you saying, “I swear to you by God, His angels and saints: when we come to Arthur’s Dun we two shall be wed together.” Now, for the rest of your life, you will know you have broken faith.

Gawain shrugged a mighty shrug. Rain flew from his shoulders.

Oh, come! She didn’t even know the force of that vow. She’s only a wild pagan, after all! In Arthur’s Dun we would call her a peasant. Broken faith with her is but a small dent on my Honor.

Aye, Sir. Like a wee rust-ridge on a shining shield.

Gawain turned the pony southward, clapped heels to hide, and rode away. Swiftly the pony trotted, lightly, with but one rider.

Carol

By no Sun’s light did Mary see

Her newborn Son; our Lord was He.

Cold candle watched her new Son nurse;

That Son she brought to virgin birth,

That Sun that beams eternally,

God’s Son the Christ; our Sun is He.

The Green Knight

  

K
ing Arthur’s Yule log burned high.

Horn dancers thumped about the Round Table. Their antlers cut through gathering smoke as if through morning mist. Their heels drummed like hooves. Proudly graceful, they circled the Round Table and wreathed among lesser tables.

Regally robed, gold-crowned Arthur brooded on his dais. He wore the only sword allowed in the hall besides his ceremonial sword, Caliburn, which hung, displayed, on the wall above. Like his knights, Arthur watched the Horn Dance with hooded, hungry eyes.

On her lower dais beside him, Queen Gwenevere looked over and between the dancers’ horned heads to the Round Table. From under a gold circlet her red-gold braid looped down rich-embroidered breast and thigh to silken slippers. Slender hands folded and smoothed, smoothed and folded the festive gown covering her lap. Her pale gaze pierced the smoke, passed dancers and knights and Gawain, to rest on Lancelot.

Gawain felt her attention arrow past him. Hunched over his mead, he turned halfway round and saw Lancelot feel it. Lancelot looked up with bored and hungry eyes. His gaze locked with
Gwenevere’s. Gawain could see him forget hunger and boredom and where and when he was. King Arthur, the whole Round Table, anyone looking at Lancelot could see sorrowful love spill like tears from his eyes.

Gawain suppressed a growl.

Like all the waiting feasters, Gawain was starved. At break of day the Round Table had attended Mass in Arthur’s chapel. Next they had ridden out hunting, thirty knights with expert woodsmen, squires, oat-fed horses, and roaring hounds. After this, a break in which to bathe, comb, and change bloody, sweated clothes for festal ones. At this break, prudent men had snatched a fistful of bread, a dipper of porridge. Gawain was not a prudent man.

Now at last they came gowned, combed, jeweled, in good appetite, to Arthur’s New Year feast. But they had forgotten Arthur’s dreary New Year custom.

At least Gawain had forgotten—and glancing sourly about the table, he thought he was not the only one.

Not a dish was carried in, with fanfare or without. Not a crumb, not a morsel would be served until the New Year’s omen appeared.

Something quite remarkable must happen now, before the eyes of the famished feasters—and Merlin must analyze, divinate, and expound upon it, and prophesy for the coming year. Only then could the feast begin.

Nursing his mead, Gawain growled louder than his stomach.

Drink was allowed before the omen. At the Round Table eyes were dimming, hands fumbling. Unless the omen appeared in the next instants, some at the table would slide under it.

Drums and dancers’ feet echoed in Gawain’s aching head. He glanced again at Lancelot.

Erect and attentive now, Lancelot looked steadily over Gawain’s head into Gwenevere’s eyes. The hunger in his face was not now for food.

A deeper growl, a comment such as the boar had made from his snowy thicket that morning, burst from Gawain. Redness crept in at the edges of his vision. Everyone knew of Lancelot and Gwenevere. No one discussed them aloud. But Gawain dreaded the damage this foolish affair might do the Round Table. He saw it as a crack in the table, which could become a split, which could widen till the table broke in half. That could end Arthur’s reign and Arthur’s hard-won Peace. And all for the love of a red-haired bitch, Queen or no! It maddened him to see Lancelot and Gwenevere lost in admiration of each other before the whole table, before Arthur himself.

Sir!
He heard his Inner Self say. It had been saying
Sir! Sir!
for some time, unable to make itself heard over the thump of music and dance.
Sir, you must not lose control. Must. Not.

What do you want me to do?

Maybe a drink would dampen your temper.

Nothing else to do!

Gawain seized and drained his goblet.
Women!
he thought. The fire they lit in a man’s loins could be deadlier than enemy swords. A knight such as Lancelot should know to guard himself against that fire. Gawain himself had known that much.

A cool green vision floated behind his bleary eyes: his Lady
Green, as she had come to him on so many delightful summer nights, green-robed, magic-girdled, her loose hair moonlit fire down her breasts…smiling.

He shut his eyes against the next vision. But behind closed eyes it came on brighter.

His Lady Green lay asleep on cold rock. He himself crouched over her, testing her knife on his thumb, ready to slice her throat on whim.

But I did not do that.

No. He left her alive. He saw himself stooped under the cave roof, pulling on his clothes, sticking her knife in his sash, ducking out into cold rain alone.

He saw himself ride away on the brown-bristly pony—
Nothing but a peasant knife in my sash!
—and leave her asleep, alone in a cave on a wild moor far from home. Brigands, Saxons, and wolves roamed that moor. And she with not even a knife…

God’s bones! She had her magic girdle. More than I had.

Gawain had not confessed that part of the story to anyone, nor ever would. He hardly knew what to think of it himself. What might others think?

Two small brown hands lifted a pitcher past his shoulder and refilled his goblet. These wee and slender hands had all five fingers strangely even-lengthed. Gawain turned to thank Niviene, Merlin’s young assistant mage.

She stood like a child beside him, dark eyes intent on the flow of mead into his goblet. Gowned in innocent white, she might be someone’s daughter, a girl too young to appear safely even in
King’s Hall, with the company hungry and drunk. But no one’s daughter would wind magic mistletoe through her coarse, dark hair. A cold wind breathed on Gawain’s heart.

Niviene’s strangeness began with her small size and even-lengthed fingers. It did not end there. She was said to read omens and cast spells nearly as well as Mage Merlin himself. Rumor said that those two together had cast the evil spell that bound Lancelot and Gwenevere together; also, that their spells maintained the borders of Arthur’s Peace. No Saxon could breathe easily within those borders. Rumor said that in the worn, patched pouch she wore even here, even today, Niviene carried herbs to heal, to wound, to mangle a man’s mind, to kill.

Gawain had never paid much heed to such matters. He’d had better things to do and think of—until his northern adventure last summer. A quick vision of Satan’s Dun rose in his fuddled mind and sank again. He shuddered.

Her task done, Niviene raised her eyes to his and smiled her rare, closed-mouth smile. A sharp, cold frisson ran down his spine, out arms and legs to fingertips. Barely, he managed to nod thanks.

Niviene regarded him. From the distance he had always kept between them, he had taken her for a girl. Close now, he saw faint lines in her face and ageless, cool wisdom in her eyes. To his intense relief she moved on to fill another goblet.

Suppose Mage Niviene knew what Gawain had done on the moor last summer. What would she think?

Thankfully, the din was lessening. Two by two the horn dancers careened out the great doors into the street, taking their music
with them. Now only the roar of drunken talk echoed between Gawain’s ears.

Take Mage Merlin himself, now. If he knew the truth, what would he think? What, in Mary’s name, would he sing?

Merlin had composed a song, “Gawain, May King,” based on Gawain’s telling of his adventure. It began:

“You northern knave, what do you here?

Ride your rough pony not so near!

We guard King Arthur’s portal, here.

Stand! Or you’ll maybe stop a spear.

Give now your lineage and name.

(If knaves have lineage and name.)

That name again? Gawain?

Gawain!”

In the song, the amazed guards brought Gawain before Arthur, who recognized him with an uncle’s delighted embrace and commanded him to tell his adventure before the whole Round Table.

In the song, Gawain then related how he, with companions, went to spy out the north country. Saxons, brigands, and wolves killed his companions. Gawain alone escaped, starving and all but disarmed, to roam the wild moors on his white charger, Warrior.

Starving, he rode into a savage May Day celebration, expecting hospitality. He was surrounded treacherously, pulled down, captured, and crowned May King. Then he had to lie with the beautiful May Queen—half Fairy, half pagan Goddess—where he
acquitted himself well, till he learned that the May King would lose his head at Summerend.

(“Amazing!” listeners would murmur. But some would nod wisely and remark that they had heard such tales before.)

Recovered by then from exhaustion and hunger, Gawain caught a scruffy pony from the savages’ herd and escaped, without arms or provenance, southward across the moors. On the way he killed game and brigands with his only weapon, the knife in his sash, and turned up at Arthur’s gate a season later, an unrecognizable shadow of himself.

The song ended with a list of the gifts and honors Arthur showered upon his heroic nephew.

What the song did not tell—because Merlin never heard—was that the beautiful May Queen fell so deeply in love with Gawain that she helped him escape; that he broke his solemn vow to wed her, and left her alone on the moor; that he discovered only when he was safely home that he was himself in love with her.

Nor did the song tell of Gawain’s nightly dreams of Lady Green: dreams of her lovemaking, of his vow-taking, and of her probable rape and death.

But she did have the magic girdle. Remember that.

If Mage Merlin knew all that…

God’s blood! He’s going to sing now!

In the relative silence after the horn dancers’ departure, Merlin had taken a bench close by the royal dais. White-robed and crusted with mystic jewels, now he was tuning his harp, Enchanter. One by one, voices dropped and sank out of hearing till the hall was still.

Gawain’s heart should have been beating high, hoping to hear again the glorious strains of “Gawain, May King.” Rather, it shrank within; almost as if fearing to hear the true story sung.

From the corner of his eye Gawain saw Niviene pause beside the Yule fire. She had poured all her mead and left the pitcher aside. Empty-handed, she stood at the fire pit, so close her dress might have caught fire, looking across the hall at Merlin. She dipped a swift hand into her worn, patched pouch, drew something out in her fist, and tossed it into the Yule fire.

Vaguely wondering, Gawain emptied the goblet she had filled for him.

Merlin struck a commanding glissando on Enchanter’s tuned strings. The last talk died away. King’s Hall waited for Merlin’s song, so silent that Gawain heard the Yule fire snap.

From the corner of a misty eye he saw Niviene glide away from the fire.

Merlin raised hand to harp again. Three slow, strange chords he plucked and drew breath to sing. Puzzled, Gawain felt his heart slow and hairs rise on his neck.

The wide street doors crashed open.

Merlin paused, mid-breath. Arthur stiffened on his throne.

Startled, the Round Table turned toward the doors as one man— one strangely slow and sleepy man. Later, Gawain would feel, and hope, that from this moment the Round Table as one man fell asleep and dreamed.

Into King’s Hall clattered a great green charger. In the green saddle rode a great green man. With no word, no sound but
the clang of shod hooves on stone floor, he rode between the lesser tables past the Round Table, straight toward Merlin and Arthur’s dais.

As best Gawain could see through newly thick smoke, the green charger was all green-furnished. The saddle was green, studded with gold and green jewels. The stirrups were green, and the bosses of the bit. The horse’s green mane, well crisped and combed, was fringed with golden threads; its tail was wound in gold threads and bound about with a broad band of bright green, sewn with green stones. Golden rings jangled along the green reins.

Wreathed in smoke, the rider appeared more startling than the horse. Huge and hideous as a giant ogre, skin, hair, and bushy beard as green as the horse’s hide, he rode fur-mantled and hooded. His arms were wrapped in green jeweled hoods that kings might wear. His spurs were golden, his belt covered with embroidered green silk sewn with green stones. In one green-gloved hand he carried a red-berried holly branch, in the other a huge battle-ax. The ax handle, bound about with iron bands, was wrapped in green lace. From his seat Gawain saw how sharp was the green steel blade.

Knights, pages, squires, servants—everyone in the hall held breath as this apparition clattered past them to halt before Arthur’s dais.

Gawain thought,
Surely, this being is Fey!

Everyone else seemed to hold the same thought. No one moved or spoke. Now the charger stood still. Only the crackle of the Yule fire was heard in King’s Hall…and the continuing, slow tinkle of Merlin’s harp, so soft that Gawain was not sure he heard it.

A deep, cracked roar burst from the phantom’s green beard. In
a strange, harsh accent he cried, “Where’s the chief of this gang?” As though he were not looking crowned Arthur in the face.

No one rushed to answer. Arthur himself paused, collecting dignity like a cloak about him.

He said slowly, “I am Arthur, head of this house.”
( Wisely spoke, Uncle!)
“Dismount and join us at our New Year feast. Later we can talk of your errand. I suppose you want a fight.”

“Nay, nay, help me, God! I came not here to quarrel. Or I would have brought my shining bright spear, my shield and helmet and sword.” The giant’s booming speech hesitated while he swallowed thick spittle.

He continued, “You can see by this branch I bear that I come in peace. All men say that you are the finest King of the finest men in the world. If you are as fine as all men say, you will play the New Year game I offer you.” The Green Knight turned in his saddle to look around the hall. “But I doubt it. I see here only beardless boys.” No knight there, nor Arthur himself, raised voice or hand to this insult. Merlin’s harp played quietly on. The Green Knight turned back to Arthur. “But, ech, it’s Yule, and New Year, and you have a company here. So I offer you this game.

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