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Authors: Anne Eliot Crompton

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BOOK: Gawain and Lady Green
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“At Summerend I will be cut down with the crops.”

A sentinel owl hoots over by the river. Women’s soft voices murmur from the barley. Or are those the voices of startled, disappointed Fairies? Hope and desire sigh away in me to silence. I lift my gown again and secure it at the throat.

In his most formal, stilted language, Gawain says, “I will drink none, love none, here in this place, Holy Oak. But in King Arthur’s Dun I will take my fill of all good things. There, too, shall you take your fill.”

“I? Never shall I see King Arthur’s Dun.” From what he has told me, I have no slightest wish to see it.

“If you wish, Lady Green, you shall see it as my bride.”

“Bride,” I repeat, slowly. “You mean, wedded wife?”

“I mean it so.”

I know what that would mean in the south, in Arthur’s Dun. He has told me.

“Lady Green, I swear to you by God, His angels and Saints, that when we come to Arthur’s Dun we two shall be wed together, and we shall live together honorably till death.”

“I must think on this.”

“Think. But not too long.”

Through the dark I feel the new hardness of his gaze as he
watches me lace on my magic girdle. It warms my cold innards, stiffens my spine. “I will go from here, Gawain, and think.”

“Go with blessings.”

“You feel quite sure of me! How do you know I will not go straight to Merry?”

“Merry’s the one in charge, as I thought.”

“Aye.”

“You will not go to him. You love me, Lady Green. Even as I love you.”

In truth, in very truth, I do love him.

Coolly, I shrug, crawl out from under the awning, and depart.

I make for the grove—not for my bower, on the safer edge of grove, but for the forbidden, secret Shrine at the center. This dark trail is barely marked. Few walk it, and seldom. As we breathe unconsciously, never visiting the inner chambers of our body except in sickness, so the Tribe lives unconsciously around this Shrine, never visiting it except in great need.

Urgently, I seek counsel of the Gods whose presence I feel more strongly at every step.

Gawain spoke truth, back there under the awning. I do love him. Young Granny was no more fool than I! How can I give Gawain up now? I must save him.

Merlin sings a song about a pearl.
My pearl of price is past all price, All price I’ve paid and pain…
Which I always thought poetic folly. How could one pearl be past all price?

To save my love from sacrifice, I would need to sacrifice all that I have.

I would need to sacrifice my good and happy life. I never thought much of it before. For years I have taken high status and self-worth almost for granted. Only the serious thought of losing these, of traveling south, where I would be nothing more than a handsome woman—Gawain’s woman, at that—only this thought brings my present good fortune clearly to mind.

Is Gawain my pearl of price?

To save him, I would need to sacrifice my Tribe. She, the Great Lady of barley, millet, peas, and onions, waits for his blood.

Would She forgive this unpaid debt? Unlikely. Maybe She could not forgive. Maybe Her power depends entirely on payment.

My Tribe’s hunger might pay for my pearl.

I would need to leave Student Druid Merry behind forever—Merry, with his dancing step and bouncing curls; vigorous, magical Merry, whom I have almost promised to wed.

Even to think this, I must find Gawain a pearl of very great price!

Holy, dread Gods, I would need to abandon You!

Once gone south I would find myself under Arthur’s rule and Gawain’s, and that of their One God, who speaks through his priests and prophets.

Is Gawain my pearl of price, past all price? My body cries out, Aye! Aye! Aye! My soul looks on, appalled.

One price I will not pay. Even if I abandon Granny, Merry, my Tribe, my Gods, I will never abandon Ynis. Ynis will come south with us.

Unseeing in the dark, I step into water.

The holy spring.

This spring rises out of the Goddess’s own footprint, pressed into stone. I have stumbled into the stream that spring sends down through stone, fern, and bramble, to join the river.

This holy, sacred water flows direct from dread Shrine to everyday, useful river. We drink this water, we bathe in it and wash clothes in it. We weave our mats from the reeds it grows. In like manner, all our life flows from the Gods.

Ankle-deep in cold water, I hesitate. A cold wind seems to blow from the Shrine ahead; yet no breeze stirs a leaf.

Knee-deep, and a chill, not from the water, seizes my spine. Breath comes shallow.

Ankle-deep again, I feel my heart thud like a waking drum.

In these three steps I splash across the stream and enter the Shrine.

Moonlight falls brighter here, because here no trees but oaks grow; all undergrowth and othergrowth have been cleaned away. Moving through silver light, I touch each oak trunk as I pass.
Friend!
I breathe to each.
Guardian of Gods. Announce me. Tell Them I come in prayer and peace.

The drum of my heart thuds dolefully. Breath and feet falter.

Crunch. I step on a long bone.

Undergrowth has been cleared away but not the scattered bones of God-feasts.

I reach to touch the next oak but draw back. Where I had thought to touch hangs a head.

Moonlit-green. Rotted. Gnawed by squirrels and pecked by birds, it glowers, lidless, down at me.

I do not touch that oak. The next one also bears a head. Most
oaks this near the altar bear heads. In her time, Granny hung two of them.

If I do not help Gawain escape, come Summerend I will have to nail up his head, maybe on this very tree where I lean now, catching harsh breath.

I tell myself,
Nothing to fear from bones or heads. No human ghosts walk here.
All these spirits flew long ago to the Summerland, or as Gawain would say, to God. Maybe some have returned by now to walk our green earth in new forms. But they do not linger here.

Gods and Demons linger here.

Two trees ahead, moonlight glares on bare altar-stone.

Green earth is the Gods’ house. We are Their bodies. They live everywhere, in everything. But Their presence in this place stops breath, freezes spine and skull.

Here in this Shrine lives the darkness of the Gods. Here live Demons who embody Death, Cruelty, and all-smiling Evil. Because darkness and terror are held here, circled by protecting oaks, Sun and Moon can shine.

At sight of the altar my heart booms. Only my magic girdle holds me up against the tree. My fingers seek the girdle, smooth it, pleat it.

I have come here to ask the question of my life. Here, the Gods will answer.

I push myself away from the tree. Hardly breathing, swaying as though drugged, I come to the altar.

It is a long, bare stone, waist-high. No moss grows on it. Lichen
that dares to grow is scraped off. But no scraping, no rain, can clean the blood stains and streams that darken the stone.

Standing before this altar, I ask aloud: “What would You have me do?” And listen. I am prepared to listen here till morning. But the answer is immediate.

Not my ears, but my eyes, notice movement to the north. Moonlight walks among the oaks.

No. A white fallow doe walks among the oaks.

She is one of those magic white deer who watch over our Tribe. Their presence promises peace and safety. Maybe she is the very one who led Gawain to our Fair-Field on May Day. She ambles past across the altar from me, and after her trip two half-grown kids, white as herself.

Our magic white deer have grown rare of late. My thudding heart leaps to see these two white fawns skip and frolic. Abruptly, the doe stands. Side by side, still jostling, the kids stand. Six dark eyes stare at me across the altar. Six ears wiggle and stretch.

For generations, no one has disturbed the white deer of our oak grove. Now they are hardly even wild. I stretch out a greeting hand. Softly I tell them, “I am Gwyneth, asking a question.”

The white doe twitches her tail.

“Do you bring me my answer?”

She snuffles.

“Show me my way, White Doe.”

She stamps. Her kids look from me to her. She walks away south. The kids follow, soberly, not playing now. South they go from moonlight into shadow and disappear.

I stand like a young tree, hand still outstretched. Could the Gods
answer more clearly? The three magic deer promise safety to my Tribe. And they went southward—toward Arthur’s Dun.

Inside my head, a rasping voice clears throat and croaks,
Prophecy, Gwyneth. We pay prophecy.

I am a tree. My outstretched hand is a branch, my fingers twigs.

You want more? More. We pay…healing. Healing, too.

What…should I call you?
(You, who live so quietly in my mind I did not guess your presence.)

Call us nothing.

You know my name. I would know yours.

You want, you give us name!

But what is the name of Evil?

Listen, Gwyneth. We prophesy you now. That one promise to wed.

Aye, he promised that.

That one lie. Will not wed.

Will not?

Lie to you. Make vain promise. Never wed.

I gasp. That slight motion frees my hand and loosens up my ragged breath.

You give us that one. We pay. Prophecy. Healing.

But…Holy Gods, a dreadful thought!

Would you live in me, then?

Hah! Live in you now.

My hand sinks to touch the altar.

Lightning shoots from fingertips up wrist and arm. I snatch my hand away.

Remember, Gwyneth. Give! Us! Ours!

Their voice rasps away to silence.

But now I know it has not gone far. It lies unknown in my mind, as a viper may lie unknown in thick thatch. I have clasped hands over heart, as though for defense. But there can be no defense from Those within. They may speak at any moment. Am I cursed? Or do They live in every heart?

Prophecy and healing They promise me—two gifts I have long sought.

Gawain promises love—a pearl past price?

About to move, to turn about and leave the altar, I draw deep breath. Something thuds among northward oaks, where the white deer came from. Twigs, or bones, crack.

What blunders out from the trees is so tall, so dark, I do not rightly see it until it is too late to move.

One oak steps out from the others. With slow, thudding steps it sways past, across the altar from me. If I leaned across the altar I could touch it. If it leaned to me across the altar…

I am a tree. My folded arms are branches, my fingers twigs. Slow as a tree I breathe, see, feel, so that the God has passed by me and gone His way before I see Him clearly. This way, I manage not to fall unconscious on the altar.

As you wake from a dream, remembering, so now I remember the God who paced by me a moment ago. His head was a huge ball of twigs and leaves, flower-crowned. His long, long arms were branches, swinging loose. The fingers, which could shred living bodies, seemed dry and delicate as thin sticks. Loose-swinging vines, sprouting unlikely flowers, robed His trunk.

Unbreathing, I watch Him stomp away south and disappear, dark among his rooted fellows.

South.

South.

Merry panted, “Doon said you…came…to see him.”

Gawain swung at Merry. “Couldn’t very well not…I did put his eye out.”

In Arthur’s Dun, rich Gawain could have offered some recompense for Doon’s lost eye. Here, as the condemned May King, he had nothing at all to offer. Yet Honor had compelled him to visit Doon’s hut and assure the boy yet again that he had meant no harm.

“Was but…accident,” Merry reminded him now.

“Aye. Watch out now, Merry. You want no accident yourself!”

“Fear not, I know you now!” Merry saluted with his wicker shield.

Their two ponies jostled each other unwillingly. With peasant cudgels, Gawain and Merry thwacked each other’s shields. They were supposedly alone in the mowing. But Gawain had spotted two ponies tethered under trees, in which he guessed watchful guards hid. More guards might hide nearby.

Merry needed little instruction in swordplay. But the combination of sword and horse was new to him. Earnestly he dueled with one hand while reining with the other. Gawain himself found this not so easy bareback, on an untrained pony.

BOOK: Gawain and Lady Green
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