Authors: Anne Eliot Crompton
At first the “duel” needed all his attention. Besides turning and restraining the animal, he had to restrain himself and his untamed
temper. Let there be no more accidents! Well he knew that if the savages did not wait for his blood at Summerend they would have shed it for Doon on the jousting field.
Thrust, parry, and rein came easier now. Other thoughts crept into Gawain’s clearer mind.
I’ve got her. She’ll do it.
All I need do is not touch her.
She can’t stand that.
Neither can I. But it’s that, or my head.
Merry’s getting good.
“Hah-hah! May King, guard your neck!”
Exactly what I’m doing…
Honor does not forbid me to lie to her. You can lie to the devil. Besides, she’s only a wild savage, like this fellow here—
Who could almost make a brother knight!
Both of them are waiting to cut my head off. Maybe this Student Druid means to do it himself.
Inner Mind cried,
Sir! Do not anger yourself! Do not—
Gawain found sky in his eyes, then grass. A tremendous blow paralyzed his back, knocked out his breath.
God and Mary, I’m down! What comes of thinking too much.
Gawain lay flat on his back, still clutching his cudgel. While he whooped for breath, Merry jumped off his pony yelling, halloing, shaking his cudgel. “A-ho, ho-ho, woo-hoo!” Merry jigged over fallen Gawain. “Square Table beats Round!” Gawain felt the ground shake as both ponies dashed off to freedom.
He had not been bested in years. He lay in Merry’s jigging shadow, looking up at the sky, sheerly astonished.
With breath and wits, anger returned. The sky in his eyes turned red. Lest Merry see Fury glare up at him and laugh louder, he closed his eyes.
Inner Mind warned,
Sir. The time has come for restraint.
“Wowowowowow!” Merry brandished his cudgel at the sky.
Sir. Calm that anger.
Gawain found breath and struggled to sit up. His back felt broken.
“Let me, Gawain!” Merry grabbed his hand and hauled him up to sit, broken back or no. “May King, if I know the rules right, now we fight afoot. Aha!”
Fight him now, Sir, you’ll kill him! Angered as you are.
Gawain muttered, “Nay.”
“Nay! No? Don’t you want to get even?”
Gawain ground his teeth. Quietly, then: “Our quarrel is not so serious.”
“Serious? What quarrel?” Merry’s dancing feet stilled.
“A joust ends now. At this point.” Very gently, “You win.”
Merry’s feet bounded up past Gawain’s aching head. “I win! I win!”
Restraint, Sir. Calm. He’s only an ignorant savage.
Testing his aching neck, Gawain looked up at the sky. It was blue again, with only a thin edge of disappearing red.
Merry’s feet landed again under Gawain’s nose. “Let me help you up.”
“No, no, no!”
“Against the rules?”
“That’s against the rules?”
“Against custom. A knight leaves his own praises for bards to sing.”
“No bards here!”
And a good thing
, Gawain thought grimly.
“You can tell one, later.” Gawain knelt up, then stood. Back, arms, and legs worked, reluctantly.
Merry looked disappointed. “So what do I do now?”
“Pretend there was nothing to it. You knock over a Knight of the Round Table every day.”
“Ah.” On the instant, Merry relaxed. All surprised joy faded from his pert jester’s face. “That was exercise enough to make a man hungry. Come on, May—Gawain. Let’s go see what cooks in the Men’s House kettle.”
“Ynis! watch what you do!” I whisper harshly. Ynis freezes where she stands, head cocked low, thin shoulders stooped. Whisper. “You’ve picked flowers instead of peas!”
She looks down at the plants drooping in her small fists. “Oh. Didn’t mean—”
“Whisper!” No need for the neighbors to know.
Women and children harvest the pea rows, sweating under wide straw hats. Dogs play and fight up and down the rows. (Except for Granny’s Brindle, who lies panting in pea-shade.) Toddlers toddle. But everyone old enough to know pea from weed works.
This work is not hard. You take a good grip on a bunch of vines
and yank. Then you hurl the vines behind you onto your growing pile. Since I was Ynis-small, I’ve found this task strangely satisfying, fun. I like to come to the row’s end and look back and see bare earth where peas used to crawl.
Granny and I work two-handed, tossing vines back over shoulder without looking around. Most neighbors work the same, to a buzz of talk and laughter. Their auras flame like fires around the field, violet, blue, green. Here and there a pink aura shows me a pregnant woman, harboring life she maybe doesn’t realize yet.
Ynis dreams and dawdles in her huge white aura. She pulls one vine at a time, in one little hand. Then she turns about and drops the vine carefully onto the pile. Or if the pile is too far, she may simply drop the vine where she stands. I dread that next-row neighbors may notice.
Why do I dread? Ynis’s talents and lacks are well known. Grown up, she will be a powerful witch. If she likes, she can lounge in her hut all day and do nothing but heal, prophesy, weave spells, and brew potions.
I don’t want her lonely.
The magical life is lonely enough. I want my Ynis capable in both worlds, competent with magic as with the everyday, with spirit as with body.
She murmurs, “It was the Fairy, Ma.”
“I went to pick his vine. He looked so sad!”
“So I went and picked the flowers instead.”
“What about the flowers’ Fairy?”
“Didn’t see him.”
I used to pity the Fairies too. I see them still—wee faces under-leaf, looking up—but I pay no heed. I grasp and yank and hurl anyhow.
“You don’t hurt Fairies when you pick their plants, Ynis.” ( No more than you hurt souls when you kill their bodies.) “Just tell them, ‘I need this plant for my life.’ They’ll understand. Your life is bigger than theirs.”
“Truly. And if you pick fast you won’t even see them. Like this. Use both hands, Ynis.”
“Can’t pick both hands.”
“Look how far Granny’s gone…” Brindle heaves himself out of shade now and trots slowly after her. “Sure you can pick both hands. That’s why the Goddess gave you two hands.”
“This one,” Ynis flaps her little left hand at me, “this one’s for magic.”
“Aye. But if it never picks a pea it may wither up on you.” I almost lose patience. “Come
Let’s catch up with Granny.”
Both of Ynis’s little hands seem made for magic. Very awkwardly they grasp and pull plants—most unwillingly. Yet I remember them planting these same peas with joy, pushing the wrinkled round seeds deep into raised earth. That was one task Ynis did well and quickly, and I remember her white aura tinged then with vibrant green.
And look at those loaded plants now! None so fruitful over in the neighbors’ row.
Ynis’s gift is for creation, not destruction. But, as Merlin sings,
Time to plant, time to pull, Time for empty, time for full…
Sometime, sitting in oak shade, I’ll teach Ynis that song.
When? Where? Are there great shade oaks to the south?
My own hands pause on the vines. What will my Ynis do with me in the south? Here, she will always be respected. Here, she will always be loved. Should tough old Granny ever fail, eager neighbors would leap to claim little Ynis and her magical gifts. Here she would never be orphaned.
In the south…From what Gawain has said, I think my Ynis might not be valued there.
Hands idle on pea vines, I see her grow up as Gawain’s stepdaughter. He would value her beauty (which she will have), her skills (which she will likely have none), and the chance of wedding her to some other King’s Companion with whom he makes common cause.
This other King’s Companion, he might be ugly, or rough. He might be a grizzled old codger. Gawain and his ilk would take little care for that.
Let me look farther, though I do not want to…Once wedded, my Ynis would bear child after child: sons to bear arms, daughters to wed and bear child after child, till they died of it. And I might not last to help her. In the south, Ynis could be truly orphaned.
Child after child…how about the children I will myself bear for Gawain? What manner of folk will they grow up to be?
Truly, all this needs thinking on.
It is my body will not let me think. “Gawain!” she cries, night
and noon. “Come what may, I must have Gawain!” How cruel he is, not to touch me!
Look. Ynis’s slow, unwilling hands have found a snake in the peas.
He is young and small, almost new-hatched. His slender aura wriggles, pea-green. He twists about Ynis’s hands and wrists. He pauses, holds still, to look up in her face. Head cocked, she holds him up close, eye to eye. Her sparkling white aura envelops him and the plants.
I do not warn her: Ynis, a new-hatched viper has all his poison. Ynis knows that. Eye to eye with the small creature, she fills him with her self and receives his self.
Time for full!
“Hey!” Granny calls, trudging back to us past pile after harvested pile. “What you two dreamin’ for?” Her straw hat swings down her bent back. “You faintin’ in the sun?” Her old feet thump earth like determined drums. “Gotta drink here, for those as faint.” She hauls a skin bottle out from under her tunic, waves it at us. Brindle waves his tail high beside her.
These are my own folk. How can I leave them behind forever?
An owl called directly overhead.
Lady Green leaped in air. Her hand tightened on Gawain’s. She stood close against him, breathing hard.
Moments later she breathed, “Real owl.”
“In the name of all Gods, be still!”
Full moonlight filtered down through oak leaves. Ahead, northwest, a stream gurgled. Never had Lady Green brought Gawain this way before. “Come.” One careful step at a time, she led him along a barely marked trail. “Don’t splash.” One careful step at a time, they crossed a narrow stream.
On this side travel was suddenly easier, moonlight brighter. But tension tingled from Lady Green’s hand up Gawain’s arm. She was frightened.
As always, she wore her long green gown and magic girdle. Also, two dark wool cloaks. Gawain had counted on the jewelry he had seen hung in Granny’s hut to pay for the journey, but he had glimpsed no glint of jewelry on her. Under the cloaks she must carry a pouch full of it. Or maybe it waited in saddlebags, on the ponies she had ready…somewhere. Unless she did not know the value of jewelry. That was possible. With these savages, anything was possible.
Sir, you should have mentioned it to her.
Too late now.
She grabbed his hand tight. Whispered, “No noise, Gawain.”
He lifted his foot off a white stick. No. White bone. Bone?
“Step on nothing here.”
His skin prickled. Breath came strangely short. Cold dread moved up his arm from Lady Green’s hand.
He was beginning to wonder if he should step on this earth here at all. But she pulled him on, over the bone, along a wider trail, past huge, ancient oak trunks. Bright silver moonlight drew his eyes upward.
“Ach!” The strangled cry gurgled in his throat. Lady Green stopped stiff in the trail.
“Hush! Gods above, what is it? Oh.”
High on a trunk, a human head looked down. Green flesh dangled from bared white bone. Eye sockets met Gawain’s shocked eyes.
Gawain had seen severed heads before. He had seen them in plenty, transfixed on spears, on gates, once on a savage enemy’s house door. Never before had a severed head looked back at him, spoken to him. He felt this head speaking in his heart. But he could not make out the words.
Lady Green tugged urgently at his hand. “Come!”
“Hush!” She pulled him along.