‘Do you not want to play the game, dear heart?’ Morgan toyed with a pearl adorning her protegée’s caul. ‘This one’s coming loose—no, don’t move, I like you there. Easy mended.’ She beckoned a servingwoman. ‘The smallest pincers from my workbox, and the gold wire.’
‘Would you put a stop to it, if I said I didn’t?’
Morgan conceded the point with a non-committal noise. She loved the girl as well as she had ever loved mortal creature, but to cease now would be both to interrupt the rite and frustrate her design.
‘Did you play it, Morgan? With Merlin?’
‘Only once. We had to, the wonder to perform, you might say.’
‘And wh-what happened to the man?’
‘Well, sweeting, he died, of course. It is a conjuration with the green earth, sealed in blood and bone.’
‘Oh! How horrid.’ She nestled closer into the folds of Morgan’s black velvet gown.
‘He chose his fate. He died of pleasure, you might say. Yes, Avice,’ she said to the servant, accepting the wire and the tool. ‘That will be all. You may leave us.’ Morgan measured out a thumb’s length of wire and clipped it off.
‘I don’t like to think of him—dying.’
‘He won’t, if he is honest.’ She threaded the wire under the delinquent pearl. ‘Or truthful. Truthfulness will serve.’
The young woman’s voice came a little muffled. ‘But what if he isn’t? It would be quite understandable, if he thought he had nothing to lose.’
Morgan gently plied the pincers, wrapping the milky jewel in gold. ‘Oh,’ she said lightly, ‘don’t husbandmen say that dung enriches the earth as well as bonemeal?’
‘What do you mean—ugh! You filthy crone!’ she exclaimed. But all the same her bare shoulders began to quiver at the idea of a renowned knight reduced by terror to such abject condition.
‘Hold still!’ Morgan laid a firm hand on the nape of her neck, and continued her work.
‘A warrior of his renown surely has dominion over—’ the giggles threatened again. ‘Over the—the lower man—’
‘Then, my dear, you need fear nothing, need you? There.’ Morgan turned in the ends of the wire, dropped the pincers at her feet, and slipped her hand caressingly under her lovely charge’s chin, stroking and raising it. ‘Give an old woman a kiss before we go to view the brittling of the boar.’
She did that, it seemed, very gladly. ’My best love.’
Morgan chose the agate bowl, but conscious of an excess of ceremony, filled it from her washstand ewer. She waited until the water was as quiet as her mind, spat into it, a powerful viscous bead, then waited again. She did this three times. When the last ripples were still, she saw in place of the dim, smudged reflection of her own coarse jowls, the sinuous brindle of hounds touched by low, searching winter sun, disappearing into covert. She named them: Carola, Malet, Torche, Fleet, Vielle, Warder, Fearnought, Galier, Saltcorn, Heloise, Nutmeg, Estampie, Trefoil, Dainty, Mont-de-Piété, Gut-cat, Bruno, Cleopes, Pinnace, Licorne, Wick, Gallant, Chypre, Carle, Peerless, Gentian, Novice, Seeker, Oathlaw, Wrastler, Slip and Monarch; the three white litter-mates, Marguerite, Dayseye and Perle, running as ever together, Aeneas, a puny tailhound skirting the edge of the holt. Horses and men stood lathered and steaming in the frost-salted, mist-bound field; Sir Bertilak conspicuous among them for the fiery hair that fell below his massive breadth of shoulder. Morgan smiled at her mental vagaries: she tried herself upon a count of jealousies hitherto unsuspected, eventually securing an acquittal. She loved to ride to hounds: it was too much, remaining muffled in here when there was good sport to be had out of doors. Her sister’s son, in his bed, did not interest her. He was an instrument merely, for the liberation of Camelot. She carried the dish to the casement and poured away the water, then began again.
This time she conjured a crisp image of Sir Gawain asleep. The window of the bedchamber was in the east wall, so the morning sun pierced the bedhangings and mottled his skin green and gold. He thrashed and whimpered, kicking the bedclothes into fetters for his legs. There was a click, a creak, a soft thud and swift, light footsteps. A shutter banged and the startled knight gave a low shout.
‘How can you sleep, man, on such a glorious morning?’
His confusion was ridiculous, Morgan thought: surely he knew the routine by now, the third day. He pulled his shirt down and the sheets up.
‘My lady,’ he replied, ‘I shall not hesitate to obey, if you command me but rise.’
She pushed her head through the curtains. The neckline of her gown plunged so low that nothing of it was visible to him; the effect reminded Morgan of the head reliquary of a virgin martyr, grotesque rather than alluring. The knight’s uncomfortable wriggle indicated that he saw the matter a little differently.
‘I’m sure you will,’ she said with a laugh. ‘If you haven’t already.’
‘I can’t think what you mean, madam,’ he reproved. ‘Am I not still abed, naked as a worm in my shirt?’
‘My lord’s pages keep worms in their shirts,’ she mused, ‘slowworms and grass-worms, and call them poison nadders to frighten serving-maids. A knight of your,’ she paused, ‘standing should keep about him a mighty serpent.’
‘Alas, I have none,’ he said. ‘But did I, I should slay it for your virtue’s sake.’
‘Then I could take no harm by getting into bed beside you? It is bitter cold.’ She pressed her hand to her bosom. ‘I am gooseflesh, look.’
‘Nay, lady, swan, and your beak nicked with the mark of one of the highest in the land.’
‘Then aren’t you lucky,’ she exclaimed, leaping gaily onto the bed in a cloud of damask and vair, ‘that he begs you sup at his table and taste his meat?’
Morgan drew a short breath and bit her lip. The girl had misjudged: it was too soon for that decisive gambit.
Gawain drew himself up and back; perturbation creased his smooth brow and twisted the astonishingly pink lips in their fair thatch. ‘Last night Sir Bertilak said that he proposed an uneatable beast for his quarry today,’ he said, a little stiffly, offering her the edge of a coverlet to warm her shoulders.
She curled into it, very gracefully, hugging her knees. ‘Oh, then he will be gone until nightfall. However shall we pass the time?’
Gawain peered conspicuously over her head, through the chink in the curtain. ‘I judge it is not far off noon, madam; sunset is not four hours distant.’
‘I know,’ she cried, ignoring him, ’Le roi qui ne ment.’
‘You cannot play with just two. And we have no wine.’
‘Au contraire, mon vieux. I hope King Arthur does not station his heavy-sleeping nephew to guard his bed, for the servants left malmsey and sweet cake for you two hours and more gone. Twitch aside those drapes on your left side—see, the victuals are within arm’s reach. Hand them in. Anyway,’ she added, ‘there are more entertaining forfeits than a draught of wine.’
He took the tray and placed it on the bed between them, too obviously doing his best to look as if he were glad of the barrier. Morgan chuckled to see his handsome, rather mindless face absorb the significance of the pair of jewelled goblets: the servants knew, so everyone knew.
‘I think,’ he said primly, ‘we’ll stick with a draught of wine for now.’
‘For now.’ She tilted her head quizzically. ‘We must crown you, your Grace.’
‘Of course. The guest is always le roi. I know!’ She whisked the girdle from her middle and knelt up to tie it around his head. The vista thus afforded caused the poor knight to quiver piteously, letting out, before he caught himself with a cough, a small and kittenish mew.
Morgan yawned. She found such courtly divertissements excessively tedious even when she was engaging in them herself. She would rather have a game of chess, which at least had the interest of territorial strategy, or hear a good tale of a sea voyage, or, like any old Briton, a poem about war, and preferably a defeat. She poured herself a tot of metheglin and soused a honey cake in it.
‘Gwyr a aeth ododin chwerthin ognaw,’ she began, spluttering crumbs, ‘chwerw en trin a llain en emdullyaw, byrr vlyned en hed yd ynt endaw…’
By the time Morgan had reached the limit of her memory (dear Aneirin, so delightfully recurring) they were lying full-length in one another’s arms, the food and drink consumed, cups and plates knocked messily to the foot of the bed. But nothing more than an embrace had actually been exchanged. How silly he looked, with a woman’s girdle on his head, convulsed with laughter, flushed with malmsey. His face paused above hers. Morgan leaned back and closed her eyes, murmuring a paternoster to mark time…sed libera nos a malo… oh, and, yes, they were kissing and caressing, limbs interlocked. She could almost feel the disagreeable flat hardness of him, like Merlin, when he had insisted on coitus in propria persona. Except Gawain wouldn’t be as bony and grinding as Merlin in propria persona, that was a comfort at least for the poor girl. He had a very nice taut creamy arse, which was a thing perhaps one should not think about one’s nephew, but there it was.
‘No!’ he shouted, wrenching himself and flinging her away. ‘I promised. I made a promise—’
Morgan could see she was shaken, but she held firm, drawing herself up into a half-sitting position. Please let her not betray the game, the rite, the magic, Morgan prayed.
She said, ‘Sir Gawain, you are welcome to Hautdesert. To take what pleasures you may, and choose—to give.’
An angry storm passed over his face, succeeded by the calm recognition of motive, of inexorable desire.
‘Jesu, Jesu,’ he gasped. ‘Oh, blessed Mother, I am already lost. Come here.’
She shed her mantle, bundled her thin silk kirtle above her thighs, and straddled him.
Good girl, Morgan thought, I never should have doubted you. She dashed her left hand into the agate bowl, dismissing the vision, and with the right filled her cup deep of metheglin.
It was all Morgan could do not to laugh aloud, when Gawain came into the hall, dressed in Bertilak’s ermine-trimmed perse blue, which had cost more than a burgher’s townhouse, but which he never wore, because (as she had warned him) it would all but engage in single combat with ginger hair and a high complexion. Against Gawain’s sandy colouring it looked much better, though several inches too broad and long, but his look of imbecile dolour, which (she supposed) he must think expressive of a stricken, tragic libertinism, was almost too comical to be borne.
She greeted him and said, ‘My lord is dressing after a weary day in the field, and my lady—'
He arranged his face into neutrality: such innocence! It was scarcely supportable.
‘—and my lady keeps her chamber: a minor indisposition.’
‘Bear her my compliments and wishes for a swift restoration to health.’
Then Bertilak strode into the hall, trailed by his followers, and immediately seized Gawain by the shoulders. Poor boy, his conventional little brain must be brangling with the thought of the horns he had bestowed, and yet Morgan could see too how his whole body yearned, a mere swaying reed, towards Bertilak’s potency and solidity.
‘I’ll begin by fulfilling our bargain,’ Gawain said, his voice consciously steady, but pitched high. ‘That we effected in solemn speech when the drink flowed freely.’
He fell to his knees at Bertilak’s feet, reached into his sleeve and retrieved the broad sash of green silk, holding it above his bowed head.
Every guest who remained at Hautdesert this late in the season of festivity had seen Sir Bertilak present his lady with this gold-trimmed girdle, embroidered with the words amor vincit omnia, and that it had adorned her little waist every day since before Christmas Eve. The air they breathed seemed to turn from clear and fresh, scented with trodden herbs and the odours of delicious food, to the noxious damp that is sometimes found in deep caverns, that can smother a man or ignite to roaring sublime flame at the merest tinder spark.
‘You have taken rare pleasures today,’ Sir Bertilak said slowly, taking the girdle and stowing it in his own sleeve. ‘But you should not think they are at an end, and in truth I’m glad of that, for I have nothing I may put into your hands—at least, in the sight of others—more than this scrappy fox fur.’ He did so, raising the relieved, trembling knight to his feet with an amused gravity.
Collecting himself, Gawain said, ‘It is the most precious of your gifts to me, because when I look at it I see your hair and beard.’
Bertilak laughed and led him to the table, where Gawain took Morgan’s accustomed seat, and they ate and drank until every other guest had either gone to bed, or passed out at his place, and only the servants and Morgan remained.
‘Well,’ said Bertilak conversationally, ‘shall we have a round of blind man’s bluff?’
Gawain’s head was drooping; he jerked it up. ‘My lord? I don’t—’
‘Stand up.’ Gawain stood, blinking, his mouth downturned and gaping like a mullet’s.
‘Bind his hands,’ Bertilak snapped. Morgan was ready to use some small gramarye of paralysis, but surprise proved more powerful than magic: the servant so ordered had it done in a trice.
Gawain protested and struggled, but intoxication overcame him, and he sank back in the chair. ‘My lord,’ he slurred, ‘what does this—I thought I was—I had—‘
‘Silence. Or I shall have to gag you, and I have uses for your mouth of which this—‘ he leaned over and subjected Gawain to a bruising, searching kiss. ‘This is the least and gentlest.’ Released, Gawain sat panting and swallowing, his eyes mutely pleading. ‘So, my little knight of unlawful lusts, you liked that, did you? As much as you liked my wife’s lips?’
‘Yes, my lord. More, my lord.’
‘Oh, there is, dear boy, there will be. You know what you agreed to, when you had her?’
‘I think, my lord, that it would be more truthful to say that she had me,’ Gawain said, with a certain conscious guilelessness, earning a morsel of Morgan’s grudging admiration. His reputation for gallantry under fire was not wholly undeserved.
Bertilak barked a short laugh, and grasped his jaw to kiss him again. He pulled his wife’s sash from his sleeve. ‘Blindfold him.’
When that was done, Morgan took her leave of them. But whether she used her agate bowl to scry that night or whether, declining (despite her indubitable wickedness) to uncover her nephew’s nakedness, she merely drank strong mead and recited the lays of the Cynfeirdd, is a detail lost to our chronicle.
Accompanied by four sleepy, shuffling pages with tapers, Bertilak led a stumbling Gawain down passages and up a narrow spiral staircase to his sumptuous chamber. A fire roared in the hearth beneath a chimneypiece that bore Bertilak’s arms, argent a fess dancetty vert, and in the corner best sheltered from the draughts of door and window stood a tall branch of beeswax candles. There was a red Turkey carpet in the middle of the floor. The walls were hung with cloth of Arras woven in the modern, pictorial style, horses and hounds and huntsmen scrambling through a dark and sinister forest. A settle, piled with cushions and furs, occupied the recess to the right of the fireplace, with a small table before it bearing wine (three silver-trimmed glass cups that glowed ruby-red in the firelight, each bearing a motif of the Thracian king tangled in vines) and comfits. On the left was a cypress-wood chest brightly painted with images of the Nine Female Worthies, and capacious enough for one of those amazons to lie down inside it. The canopy of the great bed, six feet broad and eight in length, was supported by four oaken salvage men, whose hair, teeth and shaggy loins were picked out in gold leaf. The bed-curtains, which when closed depicted golden cornucopia on a green ground, hung open; and the coverlet’s embroidered panels were a complete bestiary: Antalops, so wild no man can approach him, Regulus, that loses his malice when burnt to ashes, Crocodilus, that weeps after eating a man, Dromedarius, that can cover a hundred miles in a day, Aquila, that can look upon the sun and not be dazzled, Vulpis, that deceives its prey by feigning death, Gryphes, that lays in her nest a stone sovereign against venom, Hyaena, that may change its sex, Iaculus, that is a living spear, Graculus, the slanderer, Corvus, that has four and sixty chages of voice, Halcyon, that nests on the ocean, Agnus, whose bleat excites the tiger, Mus, that is Chthonic or born of earth, Onager, that predicts the equinox, Psittacus, that may be taught to speak by beating on the head with an iron rod, Coturnix, that has the falling sickness, Salamandra, that can live in fire, Turtur, the faithful unto death, Monocerus, that can only be captured by a virgin, Cetus, in whose scaly rind the mariner fixes his delusive anchor, Vipera, whose family life is terrible, and Eale, of the flexible horn. Upon the bed sat Bertilak’s lady, her hair freed from its golden fillet, no ornament either on any part of her, neck or arm or finger. Her kirtle of white samite left her whole gorge and half her back bare, and to the hip it was fitted in the manner that holy friars rail against at market crosses, but from there pooled out to cover the greater part of the bed. Her legs were tucked up beneath it.
Sir Gawain could see none of this, because he was still blindfolded.
Bertilak dismissed the boys and pushed his captive before him into the room, latching the door behind them.
‘Look what I have brought for us, my dear.’ He greeted his wife with a noisy kiss. ‘I must give him what he got from you, in accordance with our bargain. So you must tell me everything you gave.’
‘I will tell you, my lord, and gladly.’ Gawain said, holding his head so defiantly that in managing almost to transcend absurdity he redoubled it.
‘Shut up. Why should I trust the word of a man who is prepared to cuckold his host?’
She said demurely, ‘But the mouth of one who was a maiden at Michaelmas hasn’t—hasn’t the words.’
‘Really? I rather doubt it. Is he truly such a squire of dames? But whereof you cannot speak, my love, you must show.’
‘Oh, free him first.'
‘Yes, a fine notion.’ Bertilak drew a finger along Gawain’s cheek, and down his throat. Gawain shuddered, and Bertilak drew him into a kiss that was gentle and exploratory. He slipped one hand into Gawain’s gown to caress his haunch and buttock. Gawain teetered; steadying him, Bertilak found his prick already hard. 'Sir Gawain, wouldn’t you like to see a little dumbshow? My wife and I shall be as the argument—the prologue to the interlude that you and I shall enact.’
Bertilak guided Gawain to the settle and cut the rope tying his hands. Before he untied the blindfold, he laid his dagger against the vein in Gawain’s throat. Gawain seized his wrist, the visible half of his face creasing in dismay as he found it as immovable as an oak that had stood when the siege ceased at Troy.
‘You’ve chosen, Knight of Scant Chastity. Don’t wrestle with your fate.’ He tore the blindfold away and sheathed his dagger. The young man’s indignation melted into amazement as he slowly took in the magnificent surroundings, the lovely lady who had become his mistress that morning and was now serving her husband as squire, and doing it as deftly as any boy bred up to the job. She folded and put away gown, doublet, shirt, until Bertilak stood, his broad bosom bare, if it could be called bare that wore a red pelt nearly as thick as the fox-fur that he had given Gawain those few hours, that seemed like centuries, ago. His hosen fell in a disarray that would, had his wife’s head not blocked Gawain’s view, have been thoroughly obscene. Gawain made an involuntary noise and his hand strayed somnambulistically to his own groin.
Bertilak glanced lightly at him and said roughly, ‘Hands off your cock, soldier.’ He ruffled his wife’s hair and stepped out of his hosen. Seldom is yard less of an hyperbole than it was then: Bertilak stroked the length of it as his lady tidied the nether garments he had cast on the floor, with his other hand supporting a ballsack the size of a young bull’s. As a distraction from trepidation upon his own account, Gawain contemplated their wedding night: no wonder the girl was so imperturbable. She returned from the chest carrying in one hand a flask of dull metal, and in the other a wand of ivory, about nine inches long and in circumference equal to her small fist, blunt at the tip and mounted on a flared golden base not unlike a sword's pommel. She put these at her feet on the carpet and untied the side-lacings of her kirtle, wriggled out of the tight bodice and let the great yardage of silk fall around her feet, so she stood in her short sark.
The play Gawain saw played upon the bed enflamed and mortified him by turns. He never quite lost the cockstand that Bertilak’s tender kiss had given him, but on the other hand, there is little like seeing himself travestied to induce detumescence in a proud young man.
For it was she who took his part, even unto the girdle tied around his head: had he coerced and wheedled, then humiliatingly recoiled, not just once, but over and over? He supposed he had. At least he had remembered his manners sufficiently well to give her all the pleasures lips and tongue could offer. It was curious to see them thus transposed; exciting, to see her mouth packed with her husband’s great prick, disconcerting, to witness a parody of his own self-satisfaction in the exercise of courtesy. But then the great old knight was on his elbows and knees, as she had at one point been on hers; there was an interval of priming and preparation, as there had not this morning been, there had not need of being, as she anointed the tusk with oil, and likewise his arsehole in its deep russet scrub, then she eased the thing into him as he groaned encouragement and toyed with his cock. When it was hilt-deep, she pulled it back some way and thrust it back with sufficient force to make him whimper, jerking her hips in pantomime and mumbling the same tawdry endearments that Gawain had employed that morning. He burned with shame, but the very grotesquery of it exerted an irresistible allure. He could not look away, could not refrain from rubbing his hard prick through his clothes, though he dared not unlace his codpiece.
‘Stop, love. Preserve an old man’s vigour for another bout,’ Bertilak panted. His wife gave a last thrust, with a most chivalrous air of coup de grâce; he bellowed and squeezed his prick, but did not spend. She withdrew the wand and set it aside. With the deadly speed and hefting grace of a boar at bay, he twisted at the waist and seized her, holding her fast with one hewn arm, her back pressed against his chest, while with his other hand he parted her thighs. She laughed and writhed as he fingered her cunt, tweaked her nipples and nuzzled into her tumbled hair. ‘Dear heart,’ she squealed, ‘I didn’t hold him—like this.’
He snorted and let her go, slapping her rump ringingly as she dropped forward on hands and knees. ‘I had almost forgot our guest, in truth. How shall I have him? How would you like to see him had, my pretty hind?’
She rolled and sprawled on her back. ’As when first you made your bargain. How was he then?’
Absently, he fondled her stomach and breasts, but addressed Gawain. ‘You’re too much the philosopher sometimes, piglet. I meant, would you like me to frig between his thighs, or bugger him, or something else altogether? But since you ask: hardy, and forward, and—somewhat inattentive, even to that which is very obvious. Not out of stupidity, but out of custom, usage. He has a tidy mind.’
‘Then that,’ she said.
‘Then what? Oh, I see.'
‘Blind, and constrained. And you must be just as you were, also.’
‘Oh, vixen! You’re a voluptuary upon instinct.’
Gawain’s heart sank, and his prick leapt. Nothing mattered. Tomorrow he would die, with all his mortal sins upon him, and be consigned to eternal torment, imprisoned in a miry, stinking bowge with demons to harry and fleer him, banished forever the sight of God. He had chosen, full knowledge and deliberate consent, not deranged by even so heady a thing as lust. He had thought, this morning, as he drew her to him: I will play my lady’s servant, so that I might be de Hautdesert’s man. And now he was that, and could be no other. Nothing else mattered. Nothing at all mattered.
He let Sir Bertilak blindfold him again, while her busy fingers stripped him naked. They led him to the bed and bid him lie on his back while they tied his wrists to the bedposts with some material softer than the rope Bertilak had used earlier. They seemed then to retreat: there were murmurs, her soft laughter, and then a sound as when a massive log splits in the fire, but louder than any such he had ever heard. The air turned bitter chill, and a scent of earth and resin, tainted with sweet rot, filled his nostrils.
Then she was astraddle him; her lips on his and her hands in his hair, her lily and lilac scent mingling with a gamier, which overwhelmed him as she pushed her cunt up to his face, and for the second time that day he tasted her salt and teased her pearl.
A muscular thing jostled his cock, like some river-serpent, eel or lamprey, he thought, but warm, and then it was enveloped in wet heat. She ground down upon him until she gained, with a cry, the peak she sought. He breathed free air as she rolled off him, though the odour of pitch and loam had grown stronger and more pervasive. His arms ached and his hands were cold and tingling; curiously, it made his prick, bollock-deep in the old knight’s burning mouth, feel like the disembodied part.
He was suddenly impatient: he had seen his last sunset. Let him seal this bargain now, before he settled the last of his soiled and ruined life. He thought at first his throat was too dry for speech, then he croaked out, ‘This is not our covenant. Possess me and be done.’
Sir Bertilak’s laugh, it seemed, would split stone and the banks of rivers, cause cataracts to flow over clints that had been dry for two hundred years, and sandbanks to shift in the sea. Beginning before he had quite pulled away, it buffeted Gawain’s body like a wind driving a ship onto a lee shore.
‘We are demanding, aren’t we? Poor boy. Only dying for a fuck.’ He heard her giggle, at some little distance; she must be sitting on the settle.
He felt Bertilak’s breath on his face, hot and bitter, reminding him of the sour milk of dandelions. Then his lips were on Gawain’s, and his tongue, rough and hungry, between them.
‘Quite a delicacy, cunny on a lecherous goat’s beard,’ he growled. ‘I like your liquor well on his mouth, love. We should keep him for a little while.’
The embrace that followed was like being buried alive, cold sod piled on, he thought idiotically, but he did not want to be relieved of the smothering weight, the inexorable touch, spreading over him like masterwort, the strong teeth nipping his ears, tearing at his neck and grazing his nipples, the thick, insistent cock butting at his hip and abdomen, at length, though, Bertilak rose. The air turned the moisture on Gawain’s face, neck and torso to icy meltwater; he almost sobbed aloud, from the strain in his arms, his swollen prick, abjection and fear and exhilaration.
‘Patience,’ Bertilak said. ‘And cleanliness,’ he added eccentrically. ‘You’re in a muck sweat. Let me scrape you down.’
The lady began to sing, in an accent so idiosyncratic that Gawain at first did not recognise the song as one of his father’s favourites, that told the story of a housecarl who had survived his king and gone into exile, then to Rome, seeking absolution. As a boy he had not liked the lines in which the singer said that love of women was a bad bargain, that made a man weep after it was done, and the love that was between men surpassed it. It had seemed wrong, out of proper symmetry, and he did not want it to be true. But her limpid treble somehow restored the balance. Sir Bertilak’s hard hands returned to him, rubbing oil on his chest and belly, massaging feeling back into his arms.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘hold absolutely still. This strigil is sharp, non intravit eunuchus, and all that.’
With the first sweep of the blade across his body, the lady’s song ended, leaving the room silent but for its sinister susurration. It was sharp indeed, more like a razor than a strigil, but curved rather than straight. He endured the second raking, from throat to hip, without protest or motion, but upon the third, which seemed would beard him, flinched. He knew he had been cut only by the lady’s quickly-suppressed gasp, and the knight’s small, ambiguous grunt. The wound smarted when a cloth was clapped to his neck, but it felt negligible. Everything was negligible, he thought dimly.
Sir Bertilak clearly thought it of no significance, for his next act was to push his cock against Gawain’s lips, with a demand for service, militarily expressed. His wife struck up another song, a New Year carol that dwelt exhaustively on the agricultural blessings that might accrue from giving the singer a mug of ale. He opened his mouth, enjoying the texture and weight as he found the taste strange and a little repellent, like bruised, half-fermented fruit. Bertilak thrust four or five times more, then pulled back; Gawain heard slick sounds, like the mud closing behind a man’s step on a marshy path.
‘Here's tae the ane wi the yellow hair,’ she sang,
‘Whae’s in the hoose an we maun hae her—'
Bertilak seized Gawain’s hams and pressed them back almost to his ears, but it was with one of his accesses of kindly surprising earnestness that he spread his buttocks and pressed the soles of his feet together. He worked Gawain’s arsehole with an oiled thumb and forefinger, cupping his balls and caressing the space behind them with his other hand. He murmured continually, like an austringer: the cadence affection and comfort, the matter coarse insult; Gawain was ashamed that he responded as does the hawk, lulled by intonation, but he could not help it.
‘You knew what you wanted all along, didn’t you, you greasy churl? You ploughed my lady’s acre to get your own plot harrowed, and by all that’s holy you’ll be put to the pin—nine inch will please a lady, they say, though I wouldn’t know, but what will suffice a sodomitical apothecary’s boy got up in the gear of a knight? This, which is not short of a foot?’
Bertilak’s cock nudged at his hole; even the merest tip stretched him and stung. He thought he had not shown his discomfort, but the old knight said, ‘Cry pax when you need to; I always do, don’t I, darling?’
Gawain heard liquid pouring into a cup.
‘Mm,’ the lady said indistinctly, ‘of course you do, my dear.’
Gawain did not cry pax; his amour propre would not have let him. This, he realised to what would have been humiliation, had he any to spare, Bertilak knew too well, never quite taxing him to the point where pain would overwhelm pleasure, yet allowing the smart to add a certain savour to it, responding with swift intuition to signals that Gawain barely knew his body had made. At last Bertilak’s full length was inside him, a gravid darkness that seemed to reach into his belly and beyond. He smelled lilac and lily, and his left hand dropped inertly to the bed, followed a moment later by his right.
‘Touch yourself, boy, you’ve gone quite soft. No matter, it often happens.’
But his arms were dead, broken bulrushes.
‘Poor creature,’ she said, ‘he can’t.’ And she did it for him, with long, capable strokes, such as a man gives himself. She hummed softly as she did it, breaking suddenly into plain English:
Nou hit is, and nou hit nys,
Also hit ner nere, ywys...
It was too much, he thought, he could take no more; if Bertilak were to move, he would cleave in two, a sinner tormented in the Doom on the chancel arch of St Magnus Kirk. And yet he must: he gritted his teeth, making a feeble grizzling sound. Bertilak’s first thrusts were small and slow: he found he could bear it after all; they grew harder and faster and he could bear that too. Blood started to prickle agonisingly into his arms. She took her hand away and he groped for her, finding the flesh of her thigh. She took his right hand and put it on her cunt, but he still had no dexterity to speak of, so she pushed his forefingers inside her and rubbed herself against his thumb. With his left he clutched wildly at air until he found Bertilak’s hair: he seized a clump of it as a terrified novice horseman might a bolting colt’s.
The old knight was belabouring him hard now; he realised with astonishment that all the constriction had vanished, leaving only a delicious, melting distention. He felt the wound on his neck for the first time since it had been inflicted, but even that, being sensation, was delight, since all sensation was now delight. Bertilak seized his nape and kissed him as if he would devour him; the action made him jerk his right arm—fortuitously, for she squealed and sighed. Having more feeling in his fingers now, Gawain pushed another into her, keeping time with her husband’s thrusts. Bertilak snarled and swore as he pounded; his sweat dripped onto Gawain’s face and chest like rain falling through rank, blooming may. The pulse of culmination began in his balls; he had no energy for restraint even had he desired it. He tugged clumsily and left-handedly at his prick and, caring nothing for his reputation as a squire of dames, withdrew his right hand. The heel of Bertilak’s palm pressed into the wound on his neck, but instead of pain or strangulation he felt a clotting, as if some healing moss or herb had been packed against it in a poultice. An exquisite tingling warmth enveloped him; he squeezed his eyes shut in expectation of spending, but when he felt the blindfold snatched away, opened them in surprise.
The face bore down on him, filling his field of vision: crepitating, foliate, gnarled, vegetable in texture but animal in mobility; the eyes burning like the coals of hell, that singe but give no light, the nostrils cavernously flared, the wide mouth distorted by the vines scrolling from its corners, and green, green, green, green, green, all over green.
‘Green,’ Gawain said. His seed pumped hot over his hand and onto his belly, and he fainted clean away.
When he woke up he was dead. Or rather, he had been buried, buried in a barrow. No, that was not quite it either. He could open his eyes; he could see. He was in a rocky chamber; its vaulted walls as fine-veined as the most delicate cathedral buttressing, arching up to a funnel-shaped natural chimney. A few small flakes of snow eddied and blew in the grey aperture. He was not cold: an earthen blanket covered him. He could smell smoke, the choking kind made by burning wood a little too damp or green. It entered his throat and he coughed until his eyes ran freely. He’d had a most peculiar dream: obscene and hideous beyond the capacity of his waking brain. He knew it was a dream, because if it were not he would have a wound on his neck, just—there. He looked at his fingers in the chill small light from above, saw them rusty with the watery blood of a cut that has dried but not started to heal. He sat up with a shout, scattering soil and leaves. He was naked. He was not alone. A huddled black form moved, wreathed in smoke, and revealed itself as approximately human, broad and dwarfish.
‘Oh, you’ve come round.’ The voice was a woman’s, though deep and rasping. It had been in his dream. ‘Look, you’ve ruined your nice bed,’ she grumbled. ‘Now you’ll starve to death of cold.’
‘Where—where is—where am I?’
‘Where?’ She peered down at him, and he saw it was the ugly old lady from the castle, in his dream. Her muffling wimple was made of homespun now, not the silk it had been in his dream. In his dream. He determined to cling to that explanation as long as he could, but it was already slipping out of his fingers.
‘Where, is it?’ she repeated. She said some foreign syllables and looked in pity at his incomprehension. ‘I suppose you might translate it as—shrine, a holy place, and, oh, colours are always difficult, they don’t go across at all. Grey. Blue. Bluish-grey. Green? They’re all alike, isn’t it?’
He nodded, absorbing without understanding. Then it struck him. He tried to scramble to his feet, remembered his indecent state and fell helplessly back. His limbs ached as if he had ridden hard from summer’s dawn to dusk.
She took off her cloak and held it out.
‘Madam, I cannot, I protest!’
‘You can’t very well not, can you?’ An uncontrollable shiver ran through him. ‘Come here to the fire. You were supposed to stay sleeping till he came to collect you, but you’ve got a bit of life in you, I’ll give you that.’ He wrapped himself in the broadcloth and crouched over the crude hearth of flat stones. She sat cross-legged beside him.
‘I—I—have to meet someone,’ he said, when he’d managed to stop his teeth chattering. ‘It’s an affair of h-honour.’
Her milky, purblind eyes rolled back in her head and her hanging nether lip drooped a little further. The effect was of the frog at the world’s-end weary well, confronted with his latest hapless princess. ‘You’ve paid your debt, you unspeakable fool.’ She looked sidelong at him. ‘You were trying to cod on to yourself it was a dream, weren’t you? Well, it wasn’t.’
To keep from bursting into tears took all the strength he had left to him of manhood. He hugged his knees and rested his chin on them, trembling. Relenting, she held out her hand. He put his own into it. It was warm, safe, like his mother’s when he was a very little boy. She prodded at the fire with the stick in her free hand.
‘I’m your auntie, did you know that?’
Nothing could surprise him now. He shook his head.
‘You turned out all right, for half a Norseman. Or a Pict, or whatever he was, your da. All very unfortunate, that business with the boys from Listeneise—‘
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ Gawain said stiffly. He cringed: his voice had not struck that touchy, juvenile note since it was newly broken. But she seemed to take the point and squeezed his hand reassuringly.
‘Shall I explain?’
He nodded, in the quick, fervent manner of one who is not going to take very much of it in. She patted her thigh, and he keeled into her lap.
She explained, stroking his hair. He didn’t take very much of it in.
After a long silence he asked, ’What am I supposed to do? When I go—' he nearly said home, ‘Go back? What am I supposed to tell my King?’
‘Well, there is always the truth.’
He twisted his head to stare up at her, assuming the most dignified expression of outraged virtue available to him in the circumstances.
‘That stunned-halibut look is not flattering, nephew.’ She grinned, but downwardly. Gawain could see she was disappointed. ‘We’ll cook you up some plausible cock and bull to take back to Camelot, don’t fret.’
A penetrating bass halloo—Bertilak’s, the Green Knight's—sounded from outside the cave.
Gawain wrapped the cloak closer around himself, around his shame, that he never now could conceal from all the world. ‘I—I—don’t, I mean, no—‘ he stammered.
‘Dear heart,’ she said, ‘do you not want to play the game?’