Out in the woods, between the forest and the fell, a knight met an old monster, all over green.
“Do I know you, Sir Knight?” asked the monster.
“I shouldn’t think so, creature,” said the knight. He lowered his lance.
A little later, under the trees, a small red rain came down.
When Gawain was ten years old, or thereabouts, his mother Queen Morgause took him to see in the midwinter at the Orkahaug, the great Howe.
Gawain’s brothers were horribly envious.
“It’s because you’re the oldest,” said Agravain. “It’ll be me next year.” He looped back a flap of salt-pocked leather and peered out into the bright and glancing air of morning. They were in a tower room of their father’s keep, and the window Agravain was looking through was meant for shooting arrows out of. Through it you could see low rounded hills like the backs of great green seals, crudded with a thin crust of snow. One of the seals belonged to the next island over, though you could not see the sea. “It will cloud over by sunset, anyway,” said Agravain.
“Give over,” said Gareth. “It’s fine enough.” Indeed, though the winter sun was low, most of the sky was the deep clear blue of midwinter, like the welcoming mantle of the Virgin herself. Dark grey clouds scudded in the high air, charged with blue from the sky behind them. Banks of lower, whiter cloud hung over the land, following the shapes of the islands underneath. Where the sun hit their flanks, they shone with the peachy glint of a new-opened oyster.
The narrow window was sending a lance of sharp light into the room, glossing the smoky air, cutting through the comfortable, complicated scents of leather and peat smoke and tallow. It picked out the gleam of old spear-butts lying propped against the far wall, and the string of saltfish hanging by the door. It stroked the dull red sandstone of the walls into glowing rose.
It was important that the sky stay clear because at midwinter the great Howe swallowed the sun, if it was shining. People set great store by it.
Neither Gawain nor his brothers could remember their mother going to the winter Howe before; though none of them said it, they all knew that this year was different because the new Pendragon had been crowned in Camelot. The Pendragon was their family’s enemy because he should never have been born. He was also their mother’s half-brother. Uther Pendragon his father, the old king, had killed their grandfather so that he could steal away Igraine, the duchess of Cornwall, their mother’s mother. Uther had come to her in her husband’s shape through magic and fathered a child on her. This child was the Pendragon. Though the duchess had not known it at the time, her husband had already been three days dead.
This was why the daughters of Igraine, Elaine and Morgause and Morgan, knew that their brother the Pendragon was their enemy. The sons of Morgause knew it too.
“Tell us what happens, Gawain,” said Gaheris. “Tell us what mother does.”
Gareth and Agravain nodded eagerly. “Tell us if she says anything,” said Gareth. About the Pendragon, he meant.
Gawain nodded. Happiness was swelling up inside him like a great speckled egg, but he was careful not to let it show on his face. Agravain was probably right, after all: it would be him next year, and then Gareth and Gaheris. Mother didn’t mean anything much by it. Still, it would be the longest time Gawain had spent all alone with her since he could remember. He felt full of dark joy, like clear water in a wooden cup, brimming in a low blister above the edge.
“I’ll look after mother,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
“That wasn’t what he said,” said Agravain. “You’re not going to look after her, Gawain the girly. She doesn’t need you for that.”
“You take that back,” said Gawain, raising his fists. “All of it.”
“Boys, boys,” said their mother from the doorway. “Don’t fight now, my sweet sons.” She was standing there very tall and very beautiful, with the light from the window on her, catching the great red stone at her breast like a bead of blood. Her face was white as whale-bone. Then the leather flap fell back into place, and she was only a tall thing in the filtered gloom. “Come on, Gawain,” she said. “Time to go.”
It was a long walk along the low road to the Howe, but Morgause said it wouldn’t count if they rode. So Gawain trotted after her as the winter land stretched and hunched around them, the wind whipping among the low hills. There was a scurf of snow on the ground, shoved into hollows by the wind, so that the earth seemed scaled. Hulking rocks, furred with ice-matted lichen, hunkered down under the hills, and heather-sunk stones showed on the slopes, skirted with rusty ribs of dead bracken. Down the spine of the valleys ran peat-dark streams, knocking against the plates of ice caught in the stiff brown reeds at their edges. Seagulls skirled somewhere high above, out of sight.
Morgause was wearing rich brocades under a fur-lined mantle, a pattern of pomegranates in purple on vermilion, sewn with gold at the neck and edged with bands of orphrey. The hem was trodden out into meaty black rags like the small feathers of a dead rook, and at some point her gown had sucked up the salt from standing in seawater, so that big blooms of salt rose up almost to her thighs, swelling and fading the fabric. Under her hood, her head was bare. Her black hair was plaited with red and white silk thread, and the plait wound round the curve of her neck like a thick dark eel. She was holding a silver basin under one arm, under her cloak so it bulged like a baby. She had given Gawain a jug of milk to carry.
The jug was made of earthenware with a mossy green glaze and little faces pinched into the rim. It was a fine thing, from the far south, but it was very heavy and very cold. The milk had frozen into a sort of plug at the neck of the jug, but the movement of Gawain’s walking was jarring the seal of fatty frozen milk, and he could feel the unfrozen stuff inside sloshing around waiting to get out. He walked all the long way out of the hills, past the great ring of standing stones and the flat black welt of the loch, holding the jug in front of him with his numb red hands and worrying about the milk.
The Howe was a great grassy mound under a skin of snow. It rose up round and improbable near the wind-shivered loch, with a neat dark doorway opened in its side, black against the snow, built up on either side with stones. Behind it low hills rose under the shining sky, their tops scoured clear of snow by the wind. The Howe was surrounded by a low bank. It was just as if the land was water, and someone had dropped a stone in it. There was the ring of ripple, and the mound rising up like a droplet about to be born. There was a lightness about it that spoke of cruelty, old and insouciant.
Morgause had sent men ahead to clear out any of the ordinary islanders who might have come to see midwinter at the Howe, so Morgause and Gawain were the only people there. Around them, the landscape lay empty. There was only a pair of coal-coloured ravens, bobbing and oaring as if the air could scarcely bear their weight, and making mild cronking noises at each other as they went. It was a strangely human sound, like an old man woken abruptly from sleep with a snort and a groan, but it kept on and on, like a rusty door, as though the old man could never quite wake up. The ravens slung themselves over the mound of the Howe and off towards the hills beyond, like shreds of black hair carried out by the tide; Gawain blinked the sky-dazzle out of his eyes and turned towards the Howe. Off the low road, the ground underfoot was bouncy and crunchy with half-frozen heather.
Morgause gestured impatiently at the mouth of the Howe. “Well,” she said, “in with you, then.”
Gawain hefted his jug of milk and walked up to the mound. Up close he could see where people had stuffed shreds of cloth and woven straw into the gaps in the stonework round the doorway, and faint trails of soot on the upper lip of stone where they’d carried in torches. The clouds had gathered as they walked, but the sun still shone in great sweeps under them, lighting the flat land and the low rise of distant islands; the curve of the mound. It was an old landscape, and very worn. There were no trees, except bare twiggy sallows down by the rushing streams.
He stepped into the dark stone passageway. The light came with him, for a little while, muddled and greyish. Then his mother stooped in after him and it stopped. The wind had stopped too; inside the mound it was very still and very silent. When Gawain came out into the inner chamber, he knew it by feel; he could hardly see a thing. There was only blackness and a feel of hollow stone.
Then his mother brushed past him, her furs stroking his cheek, and he could see again. He was in a chamber shaped a little like a four-cornered beehive, the stonework curving in above his head, with heavy buttresses at each corner and square openings in the walls, big enough for a man to crawl through. There were great tall stones built into each buttress, tall as a man, as if someone had taken a huddle of standing stones from a field and wrapped a tight web of stonework around them, like a woman winding wool. On one side of the entrance passage, his mother’s men had left her a little stone lamp, a small tun of whale oil, and a heap of furs.
His mother let the silver basin fall to the floor with a dull clatter. Gawain carefully put the jug of milk down beside it and shoved his frozen hands into his armpits, under his sheepskin jerkin, to warm them. The feeling came back to them with a crawling prickle of pain which got worse and worse and then, blissfully, eased. He could see his breath making little clouds in the still air, even though it was warmer inside the mound, out of the wind.
“What now, mother?” he asked tentatively.
Morgause squatted down on her haunches, the stiff cloth of her gown creaking around her. “Now,” she said, “we wait.”
After a while, she reached out with one hand and tapped the spout of the jug. The milk inside made a kind of twist and unfroze itself.
Gawain, watching, felt the happiness inside him shiver and solidify, like a bubble of molten glass. He and his brothers hardly ever got to watch his mother’s doings. He stared at the little disc of liquid milk in the mouth of the jug and thought to himself that he would not tell his brothers about this one small thing. It would be all his own.
When the sun came down and shone through the mouth of the Howe, Morgause watched it like a hawk about to stoop. When the square tongue of yellow light had almost reached the far wall, she had Gawain stand up against the doorway, his back to the passage. Then she waited while his shadow grew with the sun, until it was stretched out as far as it would go, looming before him like a monster, tall as a tree. It rose up the wall until it lapped into the little square opening and vanished into the dark.
The common people talked about grisly creatures that lived in the mounds, about loping Howe-farmers, glutted with dead flesh. But Gawain was a queen’s son, he told himself. His father was King Lot of Orkney, off fighting for his rights against the new Pendragon. How could he please his mother if he was scared of his own shadow?
Morgause was staring at the little rim of sun around Gawain, considering. “We need to clean you up a little before the night comes, my son,” she said.
Gawain knew that other boys’ mothers - mothers who were not queens - would follow this up by spitting on a corner of their apron and scrubbing at a smut on his face, or tugging the neck of his jerkin closed.
Morgause took out an axe.
It was a small axe of greenish stone, without a handle, and it fitted easily into her palm. “Hold still now, my son,” she said. “It’s just a little undoing. This won’t hurt a bit.”
It didn’t. Morgause knelt down at Gawain’s feet, down where his shadow streamed out across the earthen floor of the chamber, and she cut slowly around the start of his shadow with the sharp stone blade. Gawain felt nothing at all.
When Morgause had finished, she gave Gawain the axe to hold and motioned him out of the way. His shadow stayed laid out on the floor, like a strip of slipped skin, long and filmy. The axe was very warm and smooth, like a small animal; Morgause had been keeping it in her bodice. Gawain watched as she moved crabwise along the floor of the small chamber, rolling up his shadow, and tucked it away under her mantle.
He gave the axe back to her and waited.
“Don’t fret yourself,” Morgause told him. “Nobody will notice that you’re missing it.” She bent down and took Gawain’s face in her hands, and planted a cold dry kiss on his forehead. Gawain felt like a live bird, cupped in a palm, warm and pulsing with pride and joy.
“What will it do, Mother?” he asked.
“It has rendered you pure,” said his mother. “Now, my eldest, if we are fortunate, you will be able to use the old ways like me and my older sister. The ways of doing and undoing. Woman’s ways, my son.”
Gawain looked up at her, struck with uncertainty. Girly Gawain, he heard Agravain saying. Meek and mild and mansuete, coddling the horses, stopping to let a magpie out of a trap so that it can be off and peck the eyes out of lambs. Milksop, mealy-mouthed. Maiden.
“Thank you, Mother,” he managed.
Morgause was staring down at him with keen dark eyes, one eyebrow slightly raised. “Of course,” she said, “at the least, this undoing will make your strength increase as the sun rises, from the undertides of morning to the height of noon. When the sun is brightest, you will have the might of three men. Then your strength will diminish again, until by the eventide it is no more than you were born to bear.”
“Oh, thank you, Mother,” said Gawain.
“It is little enough,” said his mother. “Though it should go down well in King Arthur’s court. Mind you tell no-one about it, though.” She paused. “Or you could tell the young king,” she said. “Say it’s a secret. Say it was a boon from a holy man, that only the two of you can know the truth of. He’ll like that.”
“I am to go to the Pendragon’s court, Mother?” asked Gawain. He felt a quick flash of guilty delight, for all the world knew about the young Pendragon pulling a sword out of a stone and declaring a Table Round of glorious knights, even if he was the sign of the wrong done to grandmother Igraine of Cornwall and unworthy to be his mother’s half-brother.
“You are to go to the Pendragon’s court,” his mother confirmed. “You are to be the best among all his knights - that should be easy enough for you now. You are to earn the king’s deep love.”
“What then, mother?” asked Gawain.
“That depends on what happens tonight,” said his mother. She made another twist in the way things were and the oil lamp lit up, the whale-oil shuddering in its stone cup as the wick caught. The sunlight had ebbed out of the Howe like a retreating tide; now, in the faint warm light of the lamp, the doorway and the openings in the back wall looked very dark. In the slantwise lamplight, Gawain could see letters carved into one of the buttresses in the twiggy script of the Northmen: letters and a great ramping lion, or perhaps a dragon. You are to be the best among all his knights.
Morgause set the silver basin in the middle of the floor and poured the milk into it in a thick flexing stream. Gawain’s stomach gurgled; he was suddenly light with hunger, like a hollow bladder on a wisp of old seaweed; like a sucked-dry slice of honeycomb. He looked anxiously to see if his mother had noticed, but she was taking out the axe again and using it to slice her finger. Three drops of hot blood fell into the basin of milk. Morgause licked her finger and beckoned Gawain closer. “Now you,” she said.
Gawain watched as his blood hit the milk, fraying out into thin threads like mould on a wall, before vanishing as if it was never there. He willed his hunger to vanish, but he still wanted the milk; his mouth was watering.
“Now we wait,” said his mother. “It’s a long time till midnight.” She gestured to the pile of furs by the lamp. “Keep warm if you want,” she said, “but don’t go to sleep.”
Gawain tried so hard to stay awake that he dreamed about it. He dipped in and out of waking like a raven through heavy air, nodding and falling. Whenever he woke up, he would see his mother sitting by the lamp, watching the bowl of milk. Every so often she would lean over and pinch the wick with her fingers. When Gawain woke up properly, it was at the sound of his mother’s voice.
“Gawain,” she was saying. “My son.”
There was a long silence. In the silence, Gawain saw, half unbelieving, that the milk in the basin was getting lower. It was like watching the tide come in - imperceptible and then unmistakable. He looked up at his mother.
Her face wore a curious expression, almost wry. “Your brothers sent me,” she said. “But you can send me back. I see you’ve learnt a lot, since you’ve been gone. I am really quite proud of you, you know.”
Gawain, painfully curious, kept still.
His mother smiled confidingly. “Let me cross and come again,” she said. “And I will learn to love you, my dear, most especially. After all, we have so much in common, nowadays. It should be easily done.”
There was silence again. A little later, Morgause seemed to remember about Gawain. She fixed him with her bold black gaze, and whatever she saw made her sigh and shake her head.
“Ah, well,” she said. “Come over here then.” She put her face forward and whispered something, confiding and gentle, to the empty air. It was how Gawain wished she would speak to him.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” said Gawain. It was clear that he should be able to see the creature which was drinking the milk, and that his mother was annoyed that he could not. He edged his way around the edge of the chamber and stepped around the lamp to get close to his mother, taking deep gulps of air to wake himself up. The familiar fishy smell of burning whale oil was obscurely comforting; he clung to it like a thread as his mother whipped out her hand and clasped his bare wrist.
Gawain saw, with her touch, what was drinking the milk. It was a tall shredded shadowy thing in the shape of a man, flickering like something half-seen through summer leaves. It was too big for a man, though, and it moved wrong, as if all its joints were socketed like the claws of a crab. It wore a shining kind of stuff that sometimes looked like armour and sometimes like silken chamber garments, moving in an unfelt wind, and on its head it wore a diamond crown. There was a dark band round its neck like a torc from the old days, or a crack in the flesh. Worst of all was its face. It had a perfectly ordinary face, a man’s face. Gawain could hardly bear to look at it. Then, horribly, it bent like a kitten to lap the milk.
Gawain thought afterwards that he must have moved, or made a little noise, because the thing lifted its head and looked straight at him. Milk dripped from its mouth, curdling on the instant into long sopping strings. It moved its lips as if to speak.
Gawain hid his head in his mother’s breast.
Morgause pulled him away by the hair and slapped him, as one might cuff a puppy. “Go and wait in the passage, then,” she said impatiently. “I see I expected too much of you, my son."
Gawain shuffled backwards, his face feeling all white and withered with shame. “No, Mother,” he said. “Let me stay.” He turned to the apparition and bowed clumsily, trying not to breathe in. The air was fizzy with the smell of sour milk, as if the basin had been resting there for days. “Greetings,” he said, feeling foolishness overlay his horror.
The creature made a sound at him like the twittering of magpies.
“You can’t understand a word he says, can you,” said his mother. “I should have known you’d come to this.”
Moving slowly and as it were courteously, the creature reached up with one spidery arm and plucked its head off its shoulders. It held it aloft for a moment, like a lantern. Then it lowered it gently into the basin of crudded milk, lifted the basin, and offered it to Gawain. Shadow boiled slowly out of its severed neck, like rotten smoke, and the same dark stuff began to fill the basin. As the figure leaned forwards, the blackness bulged over the rim and began to overflow. The head in the basin opened its mouth.
Gawain ripped his arm free of his mother’s hand and scrambled away to the doorway of the chamber. He kept his mouth clamped shut, because he was almost certain he was going to be sick.
When he dared raise his eyes again, there was nothing in the chamber but himself and his mother, and an empty silver dish.
Queen Morgause did not take Agravain or Gareth or Gaheris to the great Howe. Instead, she left for Camelot as soon as spring came, and returned after a little more than a year with a squalling new baby.
“This is your brother Mordred,” she told the boys. “He is King Arthur’s son.”
Gawain looked at the baby. The fruit of wicked incest was meant to be marked out by shining red eyes, or perhaps a long lashing tail. But it was a perfectly ordinary baby. It was one of the prohibitions, he concluded, that did not apply to his mother.
Since the boys could not blame their mother, they blamed Gawain. It was easily done, because he blamed himself. Moreover, since his night at the Howe, he had grown clumsy and prone to breaking things. His brothers did not know that this was because his strength increased during the day until at noon he had the might of three men. They thought he was simply growing up, and growing careless.
Five more winters and summers went by. The low northern sun rose and fell, and seals raised their mild liquid eyes in the bays to watch as sand and sea foam scudded inland, as if the sea was taking the islands back. Gawain grew accustomed to his great strength, and his brothers seemed sometimes almost to forget that he had made their mother lose interest in her sons by old King Lot. After all, she had never had much in the first place.
Still, there were other problems.
“When you get to Camelot, you should not look so,” said Gareth earnestly. “At the men.”
“I don’t look at the men like anything,” said Gawain, putting his sword down and mopping his forehead.
“You look at them like you look at the women,” Gareth explained. “You look too much. Orpheus the first sodomite looked at men like that, probably. And he ended up with his head ripped off by wild women.”
“Thanks for that, Gareth,” said Gawain dryly. “I’ll be sure to look out for packs of wild women in the great halls of Troynovant.”
Gareth smiled faintly - the idea of Camelot as the new Troy was the kind of thing he liked. Then he looked at the door of the courtyard and frowned.
“I thought the sinners of Sodom were the first sodomites,” said Agravain, lounging in the doorway. “And they got swallowed up by the jaws of hell like fat from a frying pan. God raised such a storm that the sky rained sulphur, and it flayed the sinners in the streaming streets. Then God let loose the hounds of heaven, and hell below grinned so at the hurly that the bars of the abyss broke open. All the undone cities fell like leaves from a burst-open book. That’s what God thinks of the sin of Sodom, Soft-Eyed Gawain.”
“You’re feeling poetical today,” said Gawain. “You must find the subject inspiring.”
“You’re going to go to Camelot and get knighted by the Pendragon, and then everyone will find you out and you’ll have your spurs chopped off by the court’s head cook,” said Agravain. “With a big sharp carving knife. Snip snap. And Mother will hear all about it.” He stamped off across the courtyard, his broad shoulders hunched.
“He’s jealous that you’re going first,” said Gareth.
“I did get that impression,” said Gawain. He would have fought Agravain, in the old days, but after the night at the Howe he had begun to win too easily. He had become afraid, also, that he might do his brothers a harm they could not mend from.
So he and Gareth stood in the courtyard, and they both stared after Agravain.
“All the same,” said Gareth. “Remember what I said.”
When Gawain was seventeen summers old, a ship came to take him to Camelot. While he waited for the tide to turn, he walked out across the sands of the harbour, bladderwrack and brilliant green gutweed slipping and popping under his feet. His mother had not come to see him off, but Gareth and Gaheris were there, holding Mordred between them. He had grown into a fair, solemn child, with big blue eyes. It was clear that he took after the Pendragon, something which secretly pleased his older brothers. They felt it gave them more of a claim on their mother.
“Be good now,” Gawain told him. “Listen to your mother. Do what she tells you.”
“You be good yourself, Gawain,” Gareth told him. “We’ll come for you when we’re old enough.”
“I know you will, brother,” said Gawain. “I’ll be waiting.”
There are no forests now in the Orkney Islands. There were forests there once, though, long before men built the great Howe or set up the standing stones. As Gawain walked out across the beach he was treading on treacle-dark stumps of waterlogged wood, half-sunk in the tide-rippled sand. Alder and hazel; elder and willow, clasping the sand with roots soft as rotten silk. All along the sea-eaten shore, a black forest grew under Gawain’s feet, burrowed under the sodden sand, water-weighted and barrow-silent, time-drifted. Waiting.
“No, no. In a bed there was a woman. That’s how all good stories begin,” said Lady Bertilak.
They were sitting before the fire on Christmas day, in a private chamber: the old lady and the young; Lord Bertilak and Gawain. From down in the great hall, the sound of singing rose up like sweet smoke round the spiral staircase, through the twist in the stone.
“The holly and the ivy,” sang the revellers, “when they are both full grown -”
“Tell us a story, good Gawain.”
“I can tell you a story of Arthur,” said Gawain. “How he drew the sword out of the stone, or how he came to marry fair Guinevere. Of Lancelot, the greatest and most noble knight of the Round Table.”
Lady Bertilak pouted. “We know those tales already. And besides, Gawain, in the stories I know, you yourself are called the greatest among all King Arthur’s knights.”
“Tell us a story of the high north and the sea-slung Orkney islands, son of King Lot,” said the old lady. “Of your mother more fair, Morgause, daughter of Cornwall and sister to the High King Arthur.”
“Half-sister,” said Gawain swiftly. The fire in front of them cracked and shifted, and a bright seam opened in the burning wood, seeming soft as red silk. “And anyway, a ghost story is best for Christmas, though I can’t say I can think of any.”
“Ah, give over, ladies,” cried Lord Bertilak. “Gawain has travelled hard and far and has only had one night’s good rest in a feather bed to recover his spirits. Give the man a moment before you ask him to entertain you with more than his handsome face.” He planted one broad palm on each knee and cleared his throat. “I will tell you a story,” he announced. “A story of King Arthur, even. One you most certainly haven’t heard yet.”
Lady Bertilak sent a bright glance sidelong at Gawain. “Here we go,” she said. “Brace yourself.”
“Once upon a time, a young knight rode out across the plain, looking for perfection.”
“He wasn’t a knight yet,” his wife objected. “And he wasn’t even looking for perfection.”
Lord Bertilak sighed gustily and poked the fire. “And yet he found it,” he said. “Or near enough to piss at, anyway.”
“For shame, my lord,” said Lady Bertilak. “Keep it clean.”
“He was riding out, in the beginning, to become a knight,” said her husband. “So the chances of keeping it clean were always rather limited. He didn’t know that, though. He didn’t even know his own name.”
“That seems unlikely,” said Gawain.
“He had an exceedingly sheltered upbringing,” said Bertilak. “His mother was a dear sweet lady, but she had lost both her husband and her two oldest sons to knightly combat. First of all her husband was wounded through both his thighs. So they retired themselves to the Waste Forest with their sons, and in time they sent the two grown-up boys off to be knights. This was in the bad days, after Uther Pendragon’s death but before King Arthur came to the throne. Well, both sons died in combat, and their father died after them of purest grief. Her oldest son was found with his eyes pecked right out of his head by rooks or crows. So it is hardly surprising that she became a little overprotective of her last and only son.”
“She brought him up so that he did not know what a knight even was,” said Lady Bertilak. “More than a little, I would say.”
“Would you now,” said her husband. “Well, it's true enough that when the boy first heard knights riding through the woods, he thought that they were devils, and when he first saw them, he decided they were angels. Immediately afterwards he determined to become a knight himself, and set off despite all his mother’s protestations. He left her crying in the road.”
“He sounds a simple kind of fellow,” said Gawain. “I feel sorry for his poor mother.”
“Fair enough on both counts,” said Lord Bertilak. “I feel sorry for her too."
“Tell him about the time he stole three meat pies,” said the old lady.
“Or a kiss from a lady, despite all her weeping,” said Lady Bertilak.
“Yes, yes,” said the lord. “He was a wild boy of the Welsh woods, and he had little more sense than a beast. As I have told you, he did not even know his own name.”
“Which still seems unlikely.”
“That’s as may be,” said Bertilak. “In any case, he tried fetching up at the court of King Arthur, but he got little joy of it. He rode right up to the high table, and he knocked the king’s hat clean off his head with his horse’s tail when he turned to leave.”
“I think I would have remembered that,” said Gawain.
“Possibly it was hushed up. Anyway, he was sent away with a flea in his ear and one of those impossible quests that he’d been set as a kind of jest - you know how it is. He pricked on forth across the plain - ”
At this, Lady Bertilak gave an unladylike snort of laughter.
“Honestly, my dear. It’s an archaic word for riding. And you tell me to keep it clean!”
Gawain looked from husband to wife, trying not to stare. Possibly this was how Arthur and Guinevere behaved in their private quarters. He found it hard to imagine.
“He pricked on forth and had various adventures, in all of which he conducted himself very promisingly, I’ll have you know, at least as regards physical prowess. He sent all his defeated foes back to Arthur, just in time for them to arrive on the feast of Pentecost. Which was just as well, since the king makes it his custom, so I’ve heard, never to eat upon feast days until he has seen some great deed or strange adventure. He even got himself trained up a little in arms and knighted by a kindly vavasour.”
“He even met a lady,” said lady Bertilak.
“He even met his sweetheart. She came to beg him for his help in the middle of the night, you know, wearing nothing but a short mantle of red silk over her white shift. She woke him with her tears falling on his face.”
“You should note at this point, Sir Gawain,” said Lady Bertilak, “that he knew no more what to do with a lady in bed than he knew his own name. And also,” she said to her husband, "as I remember they met in the woods, rather later. Though it is true that she was crying."
“Both tales are probably true enough. He was at least courteous enough to embrace her closely when he woke to find her arms around his neck.”
“I should hope so too.” Lady Bertilak turned to Gawain. “He truly does mean nothing more than ‘embrace’,” she said confidingly. “It isn’t a metaphor.”
“No, it certainly isn’t,” said her husband ruefully. “Anyway, eventually he took it into his head to ride back home and seek his mother, who he’d left, you may remember, weeping and fallen in the road. He’d always been what you might call a bit of a mummy’s boy for all that, though - the gentleman who knighted him had to tell him to stop saying that he’d learned such and such from his dear old mum.”
“Terrible advice,” said the old lady, shaking her head.
“Indeed. Well, he rode - or possibly pricked - off, back to the Waste Forest, and found himself in a ghastly wilderness. He asked directions from a man who was fishing in a wide river, and climbed through a crack in the rocks to find a great castle, built all in dark stone. He rode in and was received right royally: his horse taken care of and himself stripped of his armour and clad in a fresh mantle of new scarlet. Then he was led to the great hall.
“There was a fire burning in the middle of it, between four broad columns under a bright brass chimney. Sitting by the fire there was a nobleman clad in robes black as a ripe mulberry, with a cap of sable on his head. He couldn’t get up to greet the young knight, for he was sorely wounded. Soon afterwards a squire entered, bearing a sword of such fine steel that the young man could see it would be almost impossible to break it.”
“It gets broken later on in the story,” said the old lady. “Naturally.”
“The lord gave the sword to the youth. Naturally.”
“Nice work if you can get it,” said Gawain. “Had he forgotten about his mother by now?”
“Certainly not. But it is true that he was distracted by a marvel. As he and the lord were talking by the fire, a squire came forth from a chamber holding a long white lance. Blood rose in red drops from the point of the blade and dripped back down the shaft. The young man dearly wanted to ask what was happening, but he was restrained by politeness. You see, the knight who instructed him had told him not to talk too much. He didn’t want to be thought uncouth.”
“So he said nothing?”
“So he said nothing. He only watched as the bleeding lance was followed by a group of young squires bearing great gold candelabras inlaid with enamel, each of them burning with ten white candles like a flaming forest.”
“And then a maiden came in carrying a grail,” said lady Bertilak. “Of fine gold set with precious stones.”
“I thought it was of iron set with pearl,” said her husband. “And after her there came another maiden bearing a silver salver. On the salver there sat a severed head, all boltered with blood. Bathing in it.
“They passed on through the room and vanished, and the young knight never said a word. At supper they were served with food fit for a king: venison cooked in its fat with hot pepper, and clear strong wine. And afterwards, oh, a whole spicery. Figs and nutmegs; dates and cloves. Pomegranates spilling ruby seeds across the table, electuaries and Alexandrian gingerbread. Or pleuris et arcoticum,” said Bertilak longingly. “Resontif et stomaticum.”
Gawain raised an eyebrow at him.
“No,” said Bertilak. “I can’t say I know what those are either. But don’t they sound marvellous!”
“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, you know,” said the old lady. “It avoids the ribcage.”
“In the morning he woke up and the castle was empty,” said lord Bertilak. “As he was riding out the drawbridge drew itself up under the hooves of his horse. And the castle vanished behind him as if it had never been.”
“Poof!” said Lady Bertilak.
“He found a lady grieving in the forest that same day, down among the woodbine and the ivy. She was weeping over the body of her lover, who had had his head struck off. When she realised where the youth had come from, she told him that he had spent the night in the castle of the Fisher King. The man fishing in the river and the king in the castle were one and the same: he had been wounded by a javelin through both thighs, so that he could no longer hunt. She asked the youth if he had questioned anything he had seen in the castle, and he was forced to admit that he had not. She reproached him bitterly - if he’d asked a question, the king would have been healed, you see, and all the waste land made good again. Then she asked him his name.”
“I thought you said he didn’t know it?”
“He guessed. Correctly, more or less. He said he was Perceval the Welshman.”
“Well, I hope that meant something to her.”
“She changed it at once, as a matter of fact. She called him Perceval the wretched, Perchevax li chaitis, a man unlucky, diriaid.”
“I don’t see,” said Gawain, “how he could have known.”
“He could have asked. She told him too that his first fault was that he had sinned against his mother. After he left her, she had died of grief.”
“The poor lady!"
"Tell him how the maiden knew all this,” said Lady Bertilak.
“It turned out that she was Perceval’s first cousin. Later he discovered that the king in the castle was his uncle, his mother’s brother.”
“You see,” said Lady Bertilak. “It’s always the ones you let in at the door who turn out to have been in the house all along. A ghost story is best for Christmas.”
“‘It’s a hard thing to know an earl when he’s disguised as a fisherman’,” said Gawain philosophically. “‘Fár kann görla at sjá jarl í fiskiváðum.’ Orkney proverb. So, what happened next?”
“Oh,” said Bertilak. “Adventuring and so on. He went back to King Arthur’s court and proved himself with honour. Then it was prophesied before the court that the land would be laid waste unless the Fisher King was healed, and all the knights went off a-questing. Perceval grew to be the kind of poetical young fool who stares at a pair of ravens tearing at a corpse and sees only how the drops of blood in the snow remind him of the blush on his lover’s cheek.”
“Blood from a battle?” asked Gawain.
“No,” said the lord. “From a snow-blinded goose.”
“Well, I think it’s romantic,” said Lady Bertilak.
“I think it is a gentle thought,” said Gawain. “His lady must have been right fair. Did the knight ever find the Fisher King again?”
“Not really,” said Bertilak. “He broke his sword and found the pieces on the breast of a dead man in a cold chapel. He managed to mend it, but it was never the same after. There was always a crack.” He shrugged expansively. “As far as I know, the Fisher King is wounded still.”
Gawain drew his fur-edged mantle closer around him. Darkness was drawing down, the midwinter dimming soft and swift as a spring tide. “I am glad that’s one story of King Arthur that never happened,” he said. “I can just imagine all the knights of the Table Round haring off like that, on a hopeless quest.”
“Hopeless?” asked the old lady. “Why, I am told that fully half of them came back.”
“And Sir Perceval?” asked Gawain. “What happened to him?”
“Oh,” said Bertilak, “as far as I know he is pricking still. Though it changes one, you know, to see perfection.”
“Or maybe he met something else in the deep woods,” said the old lady. “Maybe he met his due deserts.” She circled her slack lips slowly above her empty gums, and cast beady black eyes on the depths of the fire. “All this newfangled business,” she said, “Cups and platters and great bleeding lances, I ask you. Well, I don’t hold with it, I can tell you that much.”
“But whose head was it that he saw, there on the salver?” asked Gawain.
Lord Bertilak smiled at him. “Why, Gawain,” he said. “Of course, it was his own.”
Grey afternoon light fingered across the arras, catching on threads of red and green and gold. Lady Bertilak leaned forwards and adjusted the fire-screen. Song threaded up from the great hall again, through the winter-white air.
“The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to do us sinners good.”
Lord Bertilak took up the refrain, his voice belling up to the red-painted ribs of the vaulted ceiling.
“The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.”
Outside, one last lick of low light was lost to the west. Darkness swallowed the forest. On bare black branches, the frost began to thicken. Birds fluffed their feathers against the cold until they looked like unhappy pine cones, and the smallest birds clustered together like swarms of great bees, hugging any seam of shelter.
Down in the kitchens of Castle Hautdesert, great sides of venison roasted in front of wide fires, under the smoky light of hundreds of tallow candles. Their flanks shivered with beads of fine fat, which ran down and dropped into dripping pans set beneath. Every so often, a boy basted the meat with red wine and black pepper, and its own thick pale fat.
When the venison was roasted, its flesh would be sealed and gilded with a mixture of flour and sugar and egg-yolks, painted on with a feather so that the meat shone half-way gold.
Across the great bustling noise-spiked space, nimble-fingered men were making false larks of beef-wrapped stuffing, shaped and skewered in tiny parcels. Other cooks were preparing collops of porpoise in thick red galentyne, or stirring a row of steaming pottages coloured white (with almonds), yellow (saffron), red (bloodwort, called sanc dragoun), blue (indigo, or inde) and green (nothing but humble parsley, ground up small). These stews had names as marvellous as their colours: Blanc de Sire; Anesere, Dragone, Viand de Cypres. Vert Desire.
The next day, they were drinking hot spiced wine. “Tell us a ghost story for Christmas, Sir Gawain,” said Lord Bertilak.
“Tell us a story of fighting for King Arthur’s court under the burning heat of noon, son of Queen Morgause,” said the old lady.
“Have some more mulberry wine,” said Lady Bertilak.
“In truth,” said Gawain, “I cry you mercy.” He still felt dazed and dazzled by the feast; his head heavy with wine; his ears ringing with sweet songs from the gallery.
“Tell us a story of lovers, my dear,” said Lord Bertilak to his wife.
“Tell us a story of water and wave, my dear,” said the old lady to the young. “For Gawain comes from the green islands, where men steal the skins of seal-maidens so that they must stay on land and live as mortal wives.”
“Come now,” said Gawain, “that’s a fable.”
“You came by Holywell, or Holyhead, did you not?” asked Lady Bertilak. She paused a moment to arrange the trailing edges of her oversleeves over the arms of her chair. Their lining of vair showed up in strips of grey and white, like snow shadowed by furrows. “Did you stop and take the holy waters?”
“No,” said Gawain. “There was no time.”
“A pity. It is a beautiful place. The waters come up under a high vault, through a great stone star.”
“Not yet they don’t,” said Bertilak, enigmatically.
“Ah, that’s right. Still, Sir Gawain, I will tell you the story of the well there, if you wish.”
“Whatever pleases you pleases me, my lady.”
“Once upon a time there was a learned and holy maiden. She lived in a vale of green fields, and she wanted nothing more than to give her life to God. Her uncle was a saint, so holiness was by way of being a family tradition, you understand. Her name was Gwenffrewi or Winifrede, or sometimes Mererid, or perhaps just Gwen.
“She was very beautiful, this maiden, and news of her beauty reached the ears of the prince of the land. He wished to take his will of her, and when she would not give up her body to him, he tried to take her by force.
"She hit him between the legs,” said Lady Bertilak, “and ran into the woods.”
“I am glad of it,” said Gawain.
“Ah,” said Lady Bertilak. “But in the greenwood she met another man. A wild manner of knight, who had failed in a part of his quest and forgotten the name of God Himself. This knight knew certain secret things, and he made a bargain with the maiden. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen; perhaps this played a part in her decision.
“The knight offered her a certain token which would protect her flesh from any manner of harm. And whether because her trust in the Lord had been shaken by the wickedness of the prince, or whether because she was afraid, or whether because the woods were green as glass and very beautiful, she agreed.”
“So the maiden was protected from the prince?”
“No, indeed,” said Lady Bertilak. “When he caught up with her, he took out his sword and struck off her head."
“The wild knight had lied.”
“He had told the truth slantwise. For after her head was cut off, the maiden took it up again and placed it back on her own shoulders.
"The prince ran away,” said Lady Bertilak, with a certain amount of satisfaction. “And the earth swallowed him. They said afterwards that it was her uncle the saint who put her head back on, but I prefer the other version.” She took a long swallow of wine. “There something very silly about decapitation, isn’t there,” she said. “It’s hard to believe our life hangs so, around our necks.”
She leaned forwards and traced one white finger through the air just above Gawain’s neck, her red lips smiling faintly.
“A happy ending,” said Gawain hastily. “The maiden lived a holy life ever after, I take it?”
“She lived a fine life,” said Lady Bertilak. “She became a nun and indeed an abbess. She left the valleys of her birth and went up to live in the hills, in great holiness, where the rowan clings to the ragged rocks. Men say she died there, though they do not tell us how. Martyrdom is a hard act to follow, I suppose.” She creased her beautiful brow. “Not the most satisfying conclusion to a tale, I grant you,” she said. “Perhaps the maiden wondered, up there in the water-shot hills, what would have happened, if she had not listened to the wild knight. If she might have made a better ending. If she might have had an ending at all.”
“A saint’s story cannot but have a good ending,” said Gawain politely. “And the beheading was certainly memorable.”
“Saints get beheaded all the time,” said the lady. “Think of St Dionysius, picking up his chopped head and walking fourteen miles with it in his arms while it preached a sermon.”
“Not many of those saints return from the land of the dead,” said Gawain.
“True,” said Lady Bertilak thoughtfully. “Do you know, some people say that the maiden lived not in North Wales, but down in the Lowland Hundreds.The land that lies now between the islands of Ramsey and Bardsey, where the gannets dive and the seagulls shrill.
"When her head was cut off and the water sprang up, it kept flowing and flowing, miles and miles of it, until it had sent all the rich lands of Cantre'r Gwaelod under the waves of Cardigan bay. All the fields and the forests of the Lowlands gone under the waters, until her head was back on her shoulders and the waters had ebbed. She could only hope the well would heal as many as it had hurt, in years to come.”
“But that’s as much a fable as any selkie-maiden and her skin,” said Gawain. “The drowned land.”
“You can still hear the church bells, ringing out underwater,” said the lady.
“You can still see the roots of the deep-drowned forests, out in the sands,” said the lord.
They both turned expectant expressions upon Gawain, who lifted up both hands in defeat. “Very well, very well,” he said. “What can I say against that? It is a more memorable ending, that I’ll grant you.”
“Perhaps,” said the lady. “But for the best ending you need a tale of lovers, I believe. That while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end. So I would wish women and men to speak of me, when I am gone.”
“When you are gone,” echoed the old lady ghoulishly. “When stories end and kings return, my dove.”
“Did the maiden ever see the wild knight again?” Gawain asked.
“In time,” said Lady Bertilak, “Gwenffrewi even learned his name.”
Outside, rooks rose above the forest, flighting fiercely before sunset, riding the rough winds and creasing the air with their cries.
Down in the kitchens of Castle Hautdesert, cooks cut up butter still cold from the undercroft. A boar's head, nestled in rosemary and bay, already half painted in stripes of green and gold, was fitted up with bulbous round glass eyes; its gilded tusks re-socketed in its gaping mouth, its jaws propped open to receive a bough of holly. Ears and nostrils plugged up with sprigs of rosemary, it gazed out grimly at the smoky room, as if about to gnash its green-spined mouth.
The boar's stare fell where long fonds of peacock feathers, glossy green and blue, gazed back with round, unlucky eyes. They were being used, with care for the disguise, to dress not the tough flesh of aged peacock, but a plump roast goose.
Across the kitchen, carefully reserved, a line of gleaming jellies lay like jewels. Crimson and golden, blue and glowing green, they caught the light and held it jealously. Inside one great pale bluish jelly little fish curved round, suspended as if swimming in a summer sea.
On the third day of Christmas, they ate spiced sweetmeats before the fire after an early supper, offered round by swift serving-men from a great silver salver. Squares of rich fruit paste, amber quince and purple damson, glinted wetly in the firelight. Gilded walnut kernels lay in heaps, like little golden brains. Sugared comfits lay in shining drifts, like snow.
Gawain stared across the fire at the lord and the lady. They were very beautiful, in the prime of their years. On their tomb they would be carved thus, though perhaps below the carver might show what lay within the stone; the ragged bones and worm-bored flesh. Now they were laughing lightly, heads bent together. Lord Bertilak lifted a sticky morsel to his red lips with a delicate silver fork, something used especially for sweets. Like a tiny version of the pitchforks devils use to toss damned souls in church paintings, Gawain found himself thinking. But small and silver; secret. Precious.
Next to him, the old lady sniffed and snorted. When he glanced across, she was staring up at him, grinning. “Tell us a story, good Gawain,” she said. “Of the heads you’ve set rolling for the sake of King Arthur.”
“Tell us a story of love or loss, or both together, Sir Gawain,” said Lady Bertilak.
“Tell us a story of pretty ladies, Sir Gawain,” said her husband. “Of fine lords with hair like raw silk.”
Gawain stared out past the men bearing sweetmeats, past the rich wall hangings, to the bay window on the far side of the room. Outside, he could just see the black-branched forest; the low grey clouds slack with snow. The sun was going down, under the wood.
The last shoots of sunlight stretched through the window, coloured by the stained glass at the borders so that it spilled on the floor in sweet lozenges of ruby red, sapphire blue. Sap green. The light fell through the dimness like syrup through water. It would melt on your tongue, Gawain thought, like pure sugar. His own mouth was sweet and spiced, the gentle burn of nutmeg and cinnamon striping his throat. He imagined his insides all lined with gold, from the boar, in clever coils, glinting in the dark of his flesh. He felt weighed down.
Gawain looked away from the light. “I think I can tell you a ghost story, after all,” he offered. “That is best for Christmas, is it not?”
There were nods of agreement. The old lady snagged a piece of sugared ginger with one bony hand and licked the juices off her fingertips.
“It is an island story, too,” said Gawain. “For in the Orkney Islands, there is a place called the Orkahaug, the great Howe.”
“A haunted place,” said Bertilak gleefully.
“Earl Harald and his men once broke their way in to the Orkahaug to spend Yuletide there,” said Gawain. “Two of them went mad.”
“As I said,” said Bertilak. “Haunted.” He shot an apologetic glance towards Gawain. “But I am silent,” he said. “Please, continue."
“Once upon a time,” said Gawain, “a boy stayed the night inside the Howe.”
He told the story as if it had happened long ago, to someone else. He left out his mother entirely. The boy in his story was a foolish braggart, who bit off more than he could chew and was sent screaming out of the Howe, his wits half-shattered.
“Some say he ran right down into the loch,” said Gawain with laboured relish. “Some say he was so scared he forgot his own name.”
Lord and Lady Bertilak looked at each other. “A ghost story is best for Christmas,” said the lady. “But that’s a sad one.”
“It’s a story about the wrong kind of looking,” said the old lady. “That silly lad saw with cruel eyes, not his own.”
Lord Bertilak rubbed his arms and called for wafers and warm wine.
Outside, darkness came down like black water.
Later, when all the candles were lit and the windows were black bubbled mirrors, Gawain stood in the bay window, singing softly to himself. “I sing of a maiden,” he sang, “who is matchless.”
There was a fruity sniff behind him.
He spun round. “My lady.”
“I ask you,” said the old lady, waddling closer and poking a knobbly finger into his chest. “What kind of woman is matchless? Or spotless, or peerless, or what have you?”
“Our Lady Mary,” ventured Gawain mildly. The old lady must be in her dotage, the way she talked. Despite his best efforts at compassion, she filled him with a sense of smothering revulsion, as if she was something kept in the earth for too long. Something from under a stone, or a hill.
“Precisely,” she said. “A dead woman. Our Lady died long ago, did she not?”
Gawain crossed himself.
Later, in his chamber, he called to mind the familiar figure from the inside of his shield: the Queen of Heaven in her blue mantle, holding it open wide, for all mankind to shelter underneath.
Down in the kitchens of Castle Hautdesert, men shaped pastry into castle towers. Filled with sweet custards or with rich dried fruit, the little turrets would be dressed with paper, pared into points. When they were carried in to the great hall, they would be set burning with wildfire, blue-green flames of aqua fortis, as if to show a castle sent complete to hell.
Out in the cool of the Confectionary, men were pouring wax and sugar into clever moulds. There was to be a gorgeous subtlety to crown the New Year's feast: an angel with great wide-open peacock wings and gilded eyes, holding out to the gaping room a platter on which lay a severed head, monstrous and green, a sprig of living holly in its mouth.
A few days later, Bertilak proposed they play a Christmas game. An exchange of winnings, like for like. Gawain remembered the laughter of the lord and lady, drawing them together like bright scarlet threads before the fire. He agreed at once, as if he'd glimpsed fresh gold.
They drank to their bargain, laughing, out of a single cup.
On the third day of the game, Gawain woke at dawn. He was dragged out of dreams by a flood of black blood. It poured out of the platter held out by the dead man, that long-gone midwinter under the Howe. This time his mother kept her grip on his wrist, and he watched helpless as the blood rose and rose around him, cold as seawater, streaming out of the silver basin, out of the head’s open mouth; out of its staring eyes. When it reached his lips, he woke up spluttering, flinching; feeling a fall as if an axe had swung down and his body was toppling towards the fresh snow.
Outside, men and horses were streaming out of the castle, on the hunt already. White clouds of breath muddled the air; hung behind them between the frost-furred trees. They clattered across the hard ground and were gone between the rough grey trunks into the dank wood, where mist huffed in the hollows like the breath of giants.
Gawain struggled out of bed and dressed hastily and untidily, leaving his sleeves half-laced. He shrugged on a fur-lined mantle and clutched it around himself as he went out into the chill grey halls of the castle. He half expected to meet Lady Bertilak coming towards him; he still felt her kiss on his face; the lord’s cheek under his lips. Warm, secret sweetmeats, with the spice of poison about them. You have been rendered pure, said his mother, kissing his forehead. Gawain shivered and passed on through the empty corridors; down the stairs to where the castle was stirring already with morning bustle, the bakehouse sending clouds of sweet steam out across the courtyard.
In the end, Gawain had to ask a serving-man the way to the chapel; he was used to the dim golden halls of Camelot, but Castle Hautdesert seemed to stretch and shift under him like something seen through water. He had a vague idea of going to pray, of presenting Lord Bertilak not with a kiss, but with a prayer for Mary. “Maiden Mother, Heaven’s Queen,” he sang softly, glancing over his shoulder for a lurking lady.
Gawain followed the serving-man’s pointing finger through a low archway and into a part of the castle he was sure he hadn’t seen before. The stone here was massier than elsewhere in the castle; straighter cut. Older. The windows and doorways were not pointed, but smoothly arched and carved with jagged mouldings, sharp as teeth. Further on in, the round archways were left quite plain, except for snarling heads at each low corbel; boars or bears. The air grew softer and shivered with promise; Gawain felt that he was going downhill. It was warmer, too, and there was a sweet scent in the air, tugging at his memory, tasting of summer. He loosened his mantle.
It was the smell of rosewater, Gawain realised, stopping dead in the doorway of a warm wet room. The new oak door had been left just ajar, and through a small gap in the heavy curtain on the other side, he could see quite the room within quite clearly. Candle-light purled through clouds of scented steam, glinted off water pooling on the floor, on water pouring from an enormous carved stone head fixed in the wall, its monstrous lip worn smooth by untold years of overflow. An iron-red stain reached down from its mouth, under the flexing water, like a tongue. Strangest of all, the water was steaming as it came, already hot. As if the head was breathing. Under the cloying scent of rosewater came a faint metallic tang; a hint of iron, even, perhaps, of sulphur.
The bath in the centre of the room was not a raised wooden tub, but a stone pit sunk into the floor, brimful of water from the gaping mouth behind. Gawain stood staring for a moment like a callow boy, transfixed, as he saw through the steam that there were two ladies in the bath, the old and the young. Their hair was caught up in wraps, but otherwise they were quite naked, their flesh - smooth and fair; old and raddled - rosy with the heat. Gawain shook himself and turned to leave, catching the inside of his cheek between his teeth.
“Do you think he will do it?” said the young lady.
Gawain paused. He turned back to the crack in the curtain.
“One way or another,” said the old lady, “we will give him to the Green Knight. I, at least, owe Arthur nothing less.”
“They say Camelot is golden,” said Lady Bertilak. “Golden and glorious. So is Gawain, you know.”
“Yes,” said the old lady. “And golden lads and girls all must -”
“As chimney-sweepers, come to dust,” finished Lady Bertilak. “God knows I am old enough to know so.”
“As Arthur dear and Guinevere most true are not,” said the old lady. “To say nothing of that hapless Lancelot.” She picked up a great jewelled cup from a board laid across the steaming water and took a hearty swallow. “I wish only to remind them, my dove, that there is a crack in every castle wall. Sweet Gawain is a worthy instrument; his mother has made him so.”
“For heaven’s sake,” said Lady Bertilak peevishly, “don’t call me ‘my dove’.”
“My dear,” said the old lady. “My douce delight, my dulcet double.”
“Oh,” said Lady Bertilak, exasperated, “for the love of Mary.” She paused, then gave a little laugh. “You know,” she said, “I believe that it is also that you are afraid. Afraid that Arthur’s court will find a way between the old world and the new. Afraid that, in the end, he’ll have it all. The queen of dethe was sore adredde,” she said, “and you are, aren’t you? Sore afraid, my Queen of Death.”
“Well,” said the old lady. “They say it’s always nice to be seen. Shall I tell you what I see, then, when you and your dear husband look at our young knight?”
“Peace,” said Lady Bertilak. “Enough.”
Through the steam, Gawain saw their bodies sway together; their faces incline and overlap. He stumbled backwards, blinking his eyes fiercely, and caught himself with his hands against the wet stone wall. Steam curled past him down the corridor. On the board across the pool, he remembered, there had been a small chessboard set up, the pieces already scattered across the board. The women had been in the middle of a game.
Gawain went back through the corridors as if he was still in a dream, his skin clammy with cooling steam. Adam had been deluded by a woman, he told himself. Solomon. David, by Bathsheba. Samson, by Delilah. Snip snap. He seemed to see many women through many centuries, reaching out with their pretty hands, holding a basin on which sat, smiling, a bleeding bearded head. He heard in the back of his mind the scratch of the axe on the floor of the Howe, a sound old and ugly, like a claw on a window, like a diamond scratching the wrong initials into glass. Samson; Hector and Achilles and all the noble Greeks undone by Helen. Maidens in dark hallways, whispering, drawing men’s eyes. He felt salt-struck, like Lot's unlucky wife.
When Gawain was back in his chamber, he undressed without thinking and climbed back into bed, pulling the covers up over his head. The sheets were still lukewarm.
Thinking confused and troubled thoughts - that he must warn Lord Bertilak; that he had been made a toy of in women’s games; that the ancient head on the bath-house wall had been carved, incongruously, with twining leaves - Gawain fell back into sleep as if down a well, dark and deep.
“You should not look so, maiden mild,” cried Gareth in his dream. “The leaves will fall, and all your words of love will tumble out.” He held up a silver basin, brimming with blood. “They’ll write your name up, in the Howe, in words of purest blue.”
“Don’t worry, brother,” said the dream-Gawain. He held up one shadow-dripping hand. “I know how to show a maiden her place.”
When he took the basin from his brother and drank it down, he found it was not blood, but rich spiced wine, heavy as syrup and coiling thick with scented steam.
“A sop fit for a queen,” said Gareth approvingly. “Sup smoothly silence, fair Gawain.”
As Gawain swallowed down the hot wine, he was conscious of a warmth and wetness, spreading down his chest. The wine was bubbling out again, he understood, from a neat little grin carved in his living neck.
When Gawain woke up and found Lady Bertilak looking at him, smiling down, he pulled back the bed-covers.
The cold air of morning licked up his side, but the lady’s flesh was warm, and her smile as she moved over him was kind, and wide.
Afterwards, the lady tried, truly, to give him a girdle.
Gawain refused, as courteously as he knew how. He felt the axe streaming down the dark air above his head; he felt he deserved nothing less.
“I thank you, my lady,” he said. “And I believe your words. But no, I think not. I have won enough for one day.”
In the evening, Gawain pulled Bertilak into the great bay window of the hall before he told him of his winnings. Stroking the dead fox’s matted fur, he heard murmurs rising behind him from the lord’s men, laughter and cat-calls. He set his face to the chill of the window, against the heat in his cheeks.
The words stuck in his mouth.
Gawain looked on the floor before him for his shadow’s familiar absence; for the first time in years he missed its anchoring darkness. He shuffled the feeling down; his mother had done it for the best.
“Come now, Gawain,” said Bertilak. “What winnings do you have for me today? They can hardly be fouler than this old fox-fur.”
Gawain reached up and kissed Bertilak three times, as eagerly and earnestly as he could manage.
The lord said something merry and slapped him on the back, but Gawain turned his eyes away.
On the morning of the New Year, Gawain knelt in the snow and braced for the axe. Then there was a falling, a falling, and a feeling like leaves slicing down, like a hot swing of sulphur.
The last thing he saw was his heart’s hot blood; red holes in the snow.
Outside, in the woods, a green man lowered his axe. A body lay before him in the snow, the great gout of blood from its severed neck already freezing, crackling quietly as the ice came up. The head had rolled a little, and lay staring, eyes open, at the bare white sky.
“Well, we expected him to take the girdle. I must say, my sister’s son is putting the whole household to a great deal of trouble.”
“He heard you, you know, in the bath-house.”
“He played as kindly as he knew how, I think. This seems a strange reward.”
“It’s an answer to a question he hasn’t asked yet. Time is, time was, time is past, my doves.”
“Heat the cauldron.”
“My sister’s snipped at this one already, I see. I’ll sew this end; you stitch that end. If you must keep back your spoils. You know, you’ll have to share.”
There was a great smell of cedar oil and rosemary, and a soft feel of steam. Gawain lifted his eyelids a little and peered out under his lashes. There was wet stone under him; over him. Grey-brown crags of rock, seamed with green algae, rose above him into darkness. Sheets of pale daylight plated the rocks on one side, shining where the light hit wetness. There was a dripping behind him, uncertain; insistent. Mist coiled, maggot-fat, into dank corners.
He was in the Green Chapel, the ugly old cave. There was a pulling and tugging at his neck, as if someone was lacing something tightly closed. Doing it up.
“Hold his shoulders.”
“Catch up his hair.”
“Did we tie him too tightly, do you think? In our game?”
“This one was tied tight long ago, I can tell you that much. He’s been waiting for this moment since he was ten years old, since his own mother snapped his shadow out from under him. She must have found that useful, over the years.”
There was the faint sound of water roaring, of an ice-tunnelled torrent, and of the wind knocking past a cave mouth, slapping at wet stone.
Gawain opened his eyes to the smoky light of tallow candles and the red glow of a hearth all around him. Great sides of meat hung over against the wall, and against his shoulders he felt boiled-smooth brass. Piles of wood reached to the ceiling, fuel for the fire under the great round cauldron where he lay, bobbing as the water boiled under him. He was down in the kitchens of Castle Hautdesert, and Bertilak, a tall and monstrous cook, was coming towards him with a ladle and a flesh-hook.
“He is sinking.”
“Kiss him, dears. He is not used to this flesh, or to wearing his own shadow.”
There was a noise of boiling and the scent of tallow candles; the iron-sweet smell of hanging meat. Something touched his lips; once, twice.
Gawain woke up flailing, his eyes wide open. He was in the water of the bath-house at Castle Hautdesert. The lord and lady, very wet, were staring at him anxiously. The old lady, quite dry, was leaning back against the wall.
His head was on his shoulders, and his body was naked as a seal-maiden who has slipped her skin. He realised, looking down, that he was entirely emerald green.
The green ebbed from his skin at sundown.
“We share it,” the lord told him. “It was the best we could do.” His skin was greening like a new leaf, glowing against the dark of night.
Gawain turned his head and stared wearily at the old woman. “Aunt Morgan,” he said. “I owe you all the duties and obedience due to blood.”
“You owe me a year’s service, I think, Gwalchmai fab Gwyar,” said his aunt. “Then we’ll call it quits, and you’ll have paid me back sevenfold, though you don’t know it yet, young nephew.”
“We guard the boundaries of the land from which no-one has yet returned, Gawain,” said Bertilak. “El rëaume don nus n’eschape, if you will.”
“Though you, perhaps, may yet return,” said Lady Bertilak. “If you will, Gawain.”
“I wish to return to do King Arthur the most good I may,” said Gawain miserably. He tried to even out his voice. “I can do him precious little good as I am now, it seems.”
“Can’t you, now,” said Morgan le Fay, rather thoughtfully. “Is that a wish, my nephew dear? Or a wager?”
“Leave off your doings for once, my dove,” said Lady Bertilak. “The man needs sleep.”
They had put Gawain back in his own old bed, as if he had never left it. He was weak on his feet as a newborn foal, his limbs heavy with hot water, with the weight of his shadow, dragging behind him like a fisherman’s net. He felt a little as if he had been freshly cooked, he thought, and shuddered, remembering waking in the kitchen-cauldron; the sound of boiling; the smell of tallow-fat.
The skin around Gawain’s neck was soft as vair or miniver, as new spring beech-leaves; as a fresh-set jelly.
“It hardens up,” said Lady Bertilak. “Just give it time.”
“It feels like blood-pudding,” said Gawain, prodding with a tentative finger.
“Don’t poke at it, nephew,” said Morgan le Fay. “There’s a dear.”
Gawain snatched his hand away. Then, pulled between indignation and horror and a drenching, drowning sense of shame, he let sleep take him, deep and red as half-set blood.
In the grey-golden light of dawn, Gawain pulled himself out of his warm bed. He dressed himself in a blue tunic and a surcoat trimmed with ermine. In the shivery primrose light his skin was willow-green.
He padded through the corridors to Bertilak’s chamber; today, he found, he knew just where to go, like a shoot still clagged with earth, turning blindly towards the light. Bertilak lay behind silk curtains in a room lit only by the grey gloss from the windows and the tamped-down glim of the fire. Gawain parted the bed-curtains and peeked in, feeling the touch of sleep-warmed air on his skin.
Bertilak was alone in bed; he lay sleeping, sprawled, his broad limbs all undone. His bearded face was sere and innocent as an alabaster carving on an empty tomb. Then he cracked one bright eye and cast a small smile up at Gawain. “Come to see what the year has to offer?” he asked, his voice raspy with sleep.
“I have come to fulfil my bargain,” said Gawain stiffly. “Though I come too late.” He stood by the bed, one hand on the cold curtains, feeling gangly as a boy fresh at court, too strong for his new limbs, as if he was about to shoot out of his skin.
Bertilak pulled himself up on his elbows and squinted up at Gawain. “There’s no use crying over spilt milk, you know,” he said. “Unlike your pushy aunt, I consider that you have paid in full.”
“I did it for ugly reasons,” said Gawain. Reasons Agravain would have used, he did not say. “The lady deserves better.” Delilah and Bathsheba, deceivers of men, his foolish tinny thoughts of fear and loathing, sat in his stomach like false coins.
“The lady took at her own choosing, I believe,” said Bertilak. “You should be saying this to her, instead of me.”
“I do not deserve to,” said Gawain.
“But you deserve me, do you?” Bertilak raised a reddening eyebrow and pulled back the covers. “In with you, then,” he said. “Let’s see what I can make of you.”
Gawain struggled swiftly out of his clothes and swung himself under the covers, warm as the steaming insides of a pie. He had lain naked with men before, of course; had even benefited from workmanlike fumblings under the covers; the touch of a stranger’s hot hand on his cock. But this was different. He stared up at the dim gleam of the bed canopy, his blood rushing jerkily through his veins. Was that green too, Gawain wondered wildly. Like sap? But he knew otherwise: Bertilak’s blood had glowed bright red on his green clothes, on the hall floor in Camelot.
Now Bertilak was raising himself up on one elbow, notching a thoughtful finger in the hollow of Gawain’s green throat. “I’m going to handle your body,” said Bertilak. “I’m going to use it. Is that what you want me to say? Is that what you said to my wife?”
“I said nothing of the sort to the lady,” Gawain managed. “But it is your right, my lord, to handle my body in the female fashion.”
Bertilak ran his hand up Gawain’s neck, cupping his face. “Trust me, sweet Gawain,” he said. “I am going to use you like a man.” He stroked Gawain’s cheek, his heavy fingers soft. “Like blood on snow,” he said. “The red on white.”
Gawain looked up Bertilak’s face. He looked quite serious; he looked intent. There was something in his face that looked, almost, like love.
Afterwards, sodden with pleasure, lying in cooling sheets, Gawain felt the face of the thing under the Howe come suddenly to mind; its shadow-soaked, ordinary head. All the horror had drained from the memory now, like ice thawed out to running water.
Perhaps, he considered, this was because he now saw that the creature in the mound, offering its own head up like a dish at table, had borne before it nothing more nor less, nothing more terrible, than Gawain’s own face.
He met Lady Bertilak in the afternoon, by the window of an inner chamber. Sleet was slopping and slamming against the glass, sliding down the windows in glossy runnels. She was looking out over the woods, at the wind-rounded treetops of the hill-slopes. The sleet had unstrung some of the snow from the branches: the woods were darkening. On the towers above them, long icicles shivered and cracked. A thaw was coming on.
They spoke at the same time.
“I am sorry.”
“I am sorry for it. I know what it is to be afraid,” said Lady Bertilak. “I wish I had been able to give you the girdle.”
“Was there no way out, no choice open, without fault?” asked Gawain. He drew a finger down the window, the green fading from it with the sun.
“Oh, Gawain,” said Lady Bertilak. “If you had been without flaw or lack, it would not have been a Green Knight you saw in the high hills. And in that case,” she added, “you would not be Gawain, who has grown dear to us, little though you may credit it. Adam inobedient, ordained to bliss, you know. A fortunate fault.
“I hear that you have come to terms with my husband,” she added, smiling sweetly.
Gawain stared at her. She wore a fine gown of black-scarlet, the over-sleeves lined with vair, embroidered with little droplets of gold across her breast. Her face was beautiful as ever, but for a moment, in the rain-slumped light, it looked old and wise rather than young and witty.
She glanced archly at him, and the moment passed. “Come now, Gawain,” she said. “Since you must stay with us in the woods for a year and a day, shall we not be friends, the three of us together?”
Gawain smiled and said something he hoped was charming. He stared out at the boundless treetops, grey-green, lit with pale lichen. A dark and hollow land. What would he have seen, out there in the forest, if he had been pure enough? A golden chalice, or a shining spear?
Lady Bertilak put her hand on the window, white over the woods. “The hall of the land is dark tonight,” she said lightly. “Come over, Gawain, to the fire.”
Outside, the trees made a sound like the sea, coming up and coming in.
The year swung into spring. Ice unlocked itself from the rocks, leaving each crack a little wider, a little deeper. Snowmelt muscled down foam-lathered streams; soaked into marshes and meres where sheeny black water fed bright green moss and spike-jawed sundew.
Snarled thickets of blackthorn were starred with white blossom, and bulbs sent up flat-tongued spears through the wet earth. Willows budded, soft and silver, by the brown rivers, and all the woods quivered with green.
Lent sent clouds scudding across the sky, trailing showers, and saltfish and sharp greens into the castle kitchens. For a week or so, at bluebell time, all the slopes of the forest were sheeted with a deep and tender blue. Blue as the skies of the Orkney Islands at midwinter, blue as the Virgin's sheltering mantle.
Blue as the vein pulsing on a lover's lowered neck.
Gawain rode the marches of Morgan’s land on Gringolet’s green back, his great axe in his hand.
At Whitsun, Gawain fought a squire. The banks were bulging with May blossom, like barm on beer, and all the land was furling rich and green. He was a little outside the boundaries of their domain, riding amongst the smooth grey trunks of beeches, under light greenshot by their fresh sheer leaves.
The squire saw Gawain through the trees and was so alarmed he attacked at once, digging his heels into his horse's flanks and waving a spear.
“Yahh!” the squire cried.
Gawain caught him in the midriff with the handle of his axe and knocked him off his horse. Then he slipped off Gringolet and walked through the wet undergrowth to help the squire up. There was a strong smell of wild garlic hanging under the trees, rank and somehow thrilling, like a finger run down the naked spine.
The squire grasped his hand doubtfully and allowed himself to be hauled up out of a nest of crushed garlic. He was evidently wondering whether they should carry on the fight.
“Go on with you,” said Gawain. “This is an unchancy forest, as you can plainly see. You are out of your way.”
The squire regarded him cautiously. “I thank you for your courtesy, Sir - Sir Knight,” he said. “It is true you have the best of me.” He eyed Gawain’s great axe. “I am searching for Camelot,” he told Gawain. “I wish to journey there and be made a knight.”
“You must journey through the Wirral and take passage across to Holywell,” said Gawain. “Ask further from the people there. And remember to stop at the well. They say it is a beautiful place.” He stared critically at the squire’s plain clothes; his lack of a sword. “You seem a little under-equipped,” he said. “For Camelot, if you will pardon the suggestion.”
“Do you know Camelot?” asked the squire eagerly. He tugged self-consciously at his sheepskin jerkin. “My mother did not want me to go,” he explained. “So I rode off a little unprovided. But I have brothers there who will help equip me.” He smiled. “I am going to stay in disguise first of all, though,” he said. “Perhaps work in the kitchens. To prove my worth, you know.”
Gawain stared down at him. He felt very old, suddenly, and tired. “Good fortune to you,” he said. “May you be lucky, in the golden halls of Camelot.”
“I don’t know if I’ll stay there long, though,” said the squire. “Once I am knighted I will be off to seek my brother. He went out on a quest and never came back. My brothers and I have sworn to search for him.”
“Don’t forget your poor mother, though,” said Gawain. “Don’t let your brothers forget her.” He hesitated. “And grieve not so much for your lost brother,” he said hastily. “I am sure he would not wish it.”
“There’s little enough chance of either thing, I fear,” said the squire. “But I thank you, sir, for your counsel.” He peered up at Gawain. “Sir Knight,” he said uncertainly, “do I perhaps know you?”
Gawain looked at his bright young face. “I do not think so,” he said. “It seems unlikely, don’t you think?”
The squire nodded slowly and remounted, turning his horse away. “I thank you again, Sir Knight,” he said over his shoulder as he went.
Gawain watched him go. The squire had never once mentioned that he, Gawain, was all-over green as a new oak leaf. But then, Gareth had always striven after tact, though he had not always achieved it.
“Good fortune, brother,” he said softly. The woods lay green before him, sharp and still.
When Gawain returned to the castle, Morgan had unrolled a number of tapestries all across the great hall and was beginning to unpick them, raising clouds of prickly dust.
Gawain climbed up to the gallery and stared down. There, warped and rucked-up, was his human face, and Gareth too, and Gaheris. His younger brothers were lying, dead and bloody, on the ground. Gawain himself was woven standing before the King, his face contorted. He was pointing angrily at Lancelot, riding away into the distance with the queen before him on his horse.
Gawain thundered down the steps of the gallery and grabbed Morgan by the shoulder. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “What are you doing here?”
“Nothing, nephew,” said Morgan, stepping backwards and rubbing her shoulder. “I am doing nothing here. In truth, I am undoing.” She paused, pleased with herself. She was young today, and beautiful.
Gawain wanted to shake her. “What is all this?”
“It was,” said Morgan, “but now it will not be. You should be happy, nephew. Your dearest brothers will live a long life, with some happiness. And, for sweet Gareth, no little share of glory.” She stared out dismally across the dust-streaked hall. “Unless I end up with more undoings on my hand,” she said. “There’s always that.”
Gawain stared at her. “You say that thing in the weaving will not come to pass?” he asked. “You swear?”
Morgan smiled ironically at him. “Oh, Gawain,” she said. “I swear.”
Gawain thought, afterwards, of the other things he had glimpsed on the tapestries. But he consoled himself with the thought that Arthur would never have fought against Lancelot in the way that he had seen laid out in silk and silver thread. For although Gawain had become - at least every day at noon - the strongest of all King Arthur’s knights, he had never been able to obey his mother and earn the king’s deep love. As far as Gawain had ever been able to see, that was reserved alone for Lancelot, and for the Queen.
Summer came soft across the land, the woods riddled with birdsong, humming with bee-slung shades. Boughs bent under green apples, under unripe pears. Hot little winds raised dust-devils in highways, and fields glinted with corn, with stone elf-arrows stuck down in the furrows.
Lord Bertilak was sitting by the window in the inner chamber, combing Gawain’s green hair. They were arguing.
“Queen Morgan is cruel,” said Bertilak. “And she has her whims. But she plays by the rules, even if sometimes those rules are her own. And she does not toy with the love and loyalty of children, Gwalchmai fab Gwyar. Gawain, son of blood.”
“Don’t speak that way about my mother,” said Gawain. “She was a cruel woman, yes, but she loved us as best she knew how, and she made me as best she could.”
“Well, that I understand,” said Bertilak. “For I am a cruel man, and I made you the best way I know how.” He caught Gawain around the waist. “I wouldn’t want my wife to get all your attention, would I?” he asked. “For I am a merry man as well, and I love you, Gawain, past all loss or lack.”
“Gawain can give me all the attention he desires,” said Lady Bertilak behind them. “For we love you, Gawain, past all loss or lack. Love has caught us by a window, by the fireplace, by the circling spiral stair.”
Gawain moved his head out from under the stroking comb. He wanted to say that he did not love them back, not in all those places. That his heart was like a castle with some rooms lit and others dark, or a beehive where some cells were sweet with honey and some blocked up with wax. He wanted to say that he had not been taught natural love, much less unnatural, and that though he was now a creature outside nature, love came uneasy to him, as if through shifting shade.
“My lady,” he said instead, smiling unsteadily. “Sing for us?”
Lady Bertilak leaned against the window, the green billows of the forest swaying behind her, and sang a jaunty tune Gawain had never heard before. “Os wyt ti yn bur i mi,” she sang:
“Fel rwyf fi yn bur i ti
Mal un, dau, tri, pedwar, pump, chwech
Meddai clychau Aberdyfi.”
On St John’s day, at the turn of the year, in a wood drowsy and dazzled with summer, the broad leaves green as glass (Nud glas minit, said Bertilak. Is not the mountain green?), Gawain met his mother for the final time.
He was guarding a ford between the forest and the wilderness, and his mother came stepping towards him through the stream.
Gringolet tossed his green head uneasily; Gawain tightened his grip upon his axe.
His mother stood in the water and looked up at him. “Ah,” she said. “Gawain. My son.”
“What do you do here, Mother?” Gawain asked.
“Your brothers sent me,” said his mother. “But you can send me back. I see you’ve learnt a lot, since you’ve been gone. I am really quite proud of you, you know.” She was wearing a gown of shining crimson samite, woven with bright blue peacocks, staring at each other in little roundels fringed with curling leaves. The fabric swayed around her feet in the water, like seaweed buoyed by the tide.
“You are a cruel woman,” said Gawain. He considered her bone-white face and her black hair and her great gaping eyes. “And in truth,” he said, “I do not think you ever loved anybody but yourself.”
His mother shrugged, and a smile slid across her face like wind over water. “Let me cross and come again,” she said. “And I will learn to love you, my dear, most especially. After all, we have so much in common, nowadays. It should be easily done.”
“You may cross,” said Gawain. “But if you try and come back again, Mother, I will strike off your head.”
His mother stared up at him.
Gawain gazed back. “I know what love is, Mother,” he said. “You can grow it; perhaps you can graft it. But your love is like the apples that grow on the ashes of Sodom. Red without, but inside only dust, taken by the wind.”
“Ah, well,” she said. “Come over here then.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “And you can hurt me, if you want to.”
“I am sorry for it, Mother,” said Gawain. “But you must come to me.”
His mother grimaced and turned aside, as if speaking to someone standing at her elbow. “Go and wait in the passage, then,” she said impatiently. “I see I expected too much of you, my son.”
“You expected this,” said Gawain grimly. “Since the Howe.”
“You can’t understand a word he says, can you,” said his mother. “I should have known you’d come to this.”
“Go on with you,” said Gawain. “The past can take care of itself.”
His mother shook herself like a dog coming out of water, and stared up at Gawain. She reached out both arms beseechingly, as if offering him a silver salver, or perhaps a shining grail.
Gawain shook his head.
His mother dropped her hands, and hissed at him, and passed across the stream.
Gawain twisted in the saddle to watch her as she walked, tall and gorgeous, into the trees. She had a great wound in her back, he saw, trailing blood behind her like a tail.
“Goodbye, glas y byd,” said Bertilak. “Good goes the green world. Don’t grieve, Gawain,” he said. “It’s a cut-and-come-again arrangement. After black winter comes the spring.”
“Get on with you, you maudlin old thing,” said Lady Bertilak. “You’ll call down sorrow.”
Autumn was coming in; rich rank mists rose from the ground, pulling up mushrooms after them, round white heads bulging through banks of yellow leaves. Blackberries weighed down brambles, green and red and glowing black, and bright little crabapples hung in the trees like golden lanterns.
On Hallowmas, Gawain killed a knight.
The night before, he had come in from the cold hills, brushing bright dying leaves off his green glossy armour. After supper, in his own chamber, Bertilak had unlaced his sleeves, point by point, his fingers deft and sure. Lady Bertilak had been sitting on the bed, combing her long hair. The sound of it joined with the sound of the fire, a soft gentle rushing, like water or rain.
Bertilak tugged one sleeve free and let it drop. “Stay with us, Gawain,” he said.
“Stay with us when the year is over, sweet Gawain,” said Lady Bertilak. “Stay and learn, my love, our love.”
Gawain swallowed. He felt an aching softness in his chest; his belly, as if he was hollowing out and filling with sweet honey, with a year’s too-short long love. “Come with me to Camelot,” he said.
“Oh, Gawain,” said Bertilak. “We would if we could.”
“It is not a land,” said Lady Bertilak, “where such as us can stay.” She stood up and crossed over to Gawain; pulled his hand towards her, between her legs, feeling through the thin white fabric of her shift. Softness, wetness; a small hardness. “Camelot has golden halls,” she said, “but does it hold a pearl of such a price as this?”
Gawain stepped forwards, crooking his fingers. Her breasts, against his naked chest, were soft and full. Her shift was caught between them like a veil.
Over his wife’s shoulder, Bertilak leaned down. Gawain reached upwards, straining, for his kiss.
The night slipped away in sweetness, in play as pure as paradise.
The day dawned bright and chill.
Out in the woods, between the forest and the fell, a knight met an old monster, all over green.
“Do I know you, Sir Knight?” asked the monster.
“I shouldn’t think so, creature,” said the knight. He lowered his lance.
A little later, under the trees, a small red rain came down.
Afterwards, Gawain swung down from Gringolet’s saddle and regarded the knight’s body. The knight had been set on leaving Morgan’s lands, although he had a great gaping wound in his side, right through his black armour, as if he had been impaled by a lance. He would not have lasted two seconds across the stream, but he would have brought blight with him, like as not. Still, he had been calling for his mother.
Gawain had struck off the knight’s head. When he walked over to where it lay, staining a drift of yellow willow leaves, and opened the visor, he was not surprised to see that the knight was quite young, only a little older than he was. Young and fair.
The knight’s eyes snapped open.
Gawain kept his peace; such things happened, he had learned, in the places where Morgan was queen.
The knight spoke. “Gawain?” he asked.
It was a question, but his eyes slipped shut again before Gawain could answer.
When Gawain eased off the dead knight’s helmet, he saw that he wore on his fair head a gleaming golden crown.
“You said I owed you a year, Aunt Morgan,” said Gawain. “If I leave now, I will not be back in Camelot until the year is over.”
“Why, nephew,” said Morgan. “Have I taught you to bargain, where my sister could not?”
“I believe it was we who taught him that much,” said Lady Bertilak.
“There’s no need to sound so proud of it,” said Gawain, smiling. He turned back to Morgan. “You were intrigued,” he said. “When I said I believed I could do Arthur no good, as I am now. Would you care to make it a wager?”
“I did already,” said Morgan. “It’s not so fun if you know about it, though.” She shrugged. “Go, then, if you wish. But I’ll warn you, Gawain, you won’t like what you find there.”
“We will journey with you, at least,” said Bertilak. “For as long as we can.”
They travelled fast. Through water-sunk woods, past the mistletoe-sucked trees of the Southern Marches, bare winter branches clagged with lobed green leaves and waxy white berries.
They crossed an underwater bridge, where their hair waved wild in the currents, like floating weeds.
They crossed a sword bridge, which turned the flat of its blade up for them as they went, so that they rode across with a bow and a clatter.
They rode under rocks in cloth of gold, with Gawain by day in green.
"We will come to court at Christmas," said the smiling Sir Gawain. "The young king holds his revels then, as you well know, of course. We will come to court at Christmas, when the torches burn out bright. And they'll never see my strangeness, by the sunset's kindly light."
Yet the closer they came to Camelot, the grimmer grew the land.
“It’s winter drear,” cried Sir Gawain. “It’s winter cold, that clasps the land so tight. The empty fields and the ruined homes are the touch of the year’s long night.”
They rode past rags of castle wall, and towers burnt like teeth. “It’s winter cruel,” cried Sir Gawain. “It’s winter white, that draws green rot and this soft blight.”
Then they rode on past the battlefield, and Gawain let silence fall.
And when they came to Camelot, beside the grey-green sea, like a city of glass it seemed to them, like a place that once was green. The woods grew up to the shining walls, and the gates were open wide.
The king was in his dim gold hall, beside a fire of brass. He wore a robe black as mulberry, and his face was worn and old.
Gawain twisted round in his saddle. “Did you know of this?” he asked his companions. It seemed the most important question he had ever asked.
They both shook their heads, mute for a moment.
“Time is slippery for us,” said Bertilak. “Hard to hold steady. But we did not know.”
“I am sorry, Gawain,” said Lady Bertilak. “Truly.”
“What is that sound?” King Arthur asked. “Like magpies, far away?”
Guinevere, sitting beside him, glanced up at Gawain. “It is a Christmas adventure, my dear,” she said. “Like we had in the old days. Do you remember?”
Lancelot stepped stiffly out from behind the throne, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “If you bring a challenge, I will meet it,” he said. “But let the king be, Sir Knight. He is sore wounded through both his thighs by his son the traitor. He cannot answer you.”
“His son the traitor?” Gawain asked, his voice creaking. He had plucked a bob of holly before he came to the castle; now it seemed a cruel mockery; an ugly jest.
“Mordred,” said Guinevere. “He rides in black armour, and he stole the king’s own crown; almost his own wide land. He left it cursed behind him, you can see. A two-faced kind of creature; his mother taught him wicked arts, though they say it was he who killed her, in the end.
"Fortunately,” she continued, “he is already dead.”
“I know,” said Gawain. He remembered the fair young knight, only a little older than himself, with their mother’s name on his lips as he tried to cross back to the land of the living. Listen to your mother. “Oh, I know.”
"My dear Sir Monster?" Arthur asked. "Are you sure that you are quite all right?"
Gawain scrubbed his hand across his eyes and turned to Lancelot. “Gareth and Gaheris yet live?” he asked.
“Of course they do,” said Lancelot. “Gareth is dear to me as my own son.” He paused and said, belligerently, “and if I killed Agravain, Sir Knight, it was in a fair fight he himself began.”
Gawain bowed his head.
“Do you bring a challenge, then, Sir Knight?” asked Lancelot impatiently. “The land is sick. We have no time for wonders here. And if you seek the sons of Orkney, look up north. They have never truly loved the court, not since we lost their brother long ago.”
“I remember,” said Arthur suddenly. “Of course I remember those Christmas games.” He raised his white head and looked at Gawain, at the bob of holly in his hand. “How marvellous,” he said. “The blood streams down.”
“What do you mean, my love?” asked Guinevere.
“There’s nothing there,” said Lancelot, “but holly held up by a kind of thing in green.”
“He holds a lance of white iron, with blood at the tip,” said Arthur. “And behind him comes a maiden with a wondrous cup, and a tall man holding out a salver with upon it - ah. You do not see?”
“I see a green man holding holly, and two creatures close behind him, fair of face,” said Guinevere. “Come now. When you and Lancelot made accord, we swore there would be no more chasing after strangeness, after legacy and loss.”
Arthur, uncertain, passed his hand across his eyes. “I see the green bough now,” he said. “But the spear was very fine.”
The air in the great hall was still and dim, like the space inside a dead man’s mouth. Waiting. Gawain stared between the king and his queen, and Lancelot. All of them old now, grey-haired, lined. Worn by betrayal and outsize, improper love. A thousand careful, loving little lies. Did the king fish, he wondered, from the quays of Camelot?
As they walked through the empty city streets, tall buds of salt had stained the buildings, crisp climbing sea-blossoms, waiting to bloom. Water had pooled, brown and brackish, between buildings built below the cliffs. People had huddled in the upper levels, women whispering in hallways, staring as they passed. It was women's work, that whispering, he knew. He knew, these days, a little of its worth. But it alone could not hold the land together. The sea was coming in. He could have asked, said Bertilak's wry voice. All the waste land made good again.
“Arthur,” he said carefully. “My liege lord. I ask you, which would you choose? The green bough or the bleeding spear? The choice I put in your fist,” he said. Words came to him, out of time. “I putt the choyse in you.”
Arthur looked up from his throne, wincing as he moved. He looked at the holly; at, perhaps, the spear. He turned to look beside him, between Lancelot and Guinevere.
Gawain could smell the wound now, rank like sour milk.
“What is that sweet savour?” Guinevere murmured. “Can you smell it, Lancelot?”
“Like summer, Gwen.”
The King of Logres drew himself up. “I make no choice,” he said. “Or, rather, I choose both.”
There was a sound as of bells ringing deep underwater, under sea. The holly branch in Gawain’s hand fell outward into light.
For a moment, twisting in the saddle, he seemed to see his lovers’ faces lit by a light from both inside and outside of time, his lady holding out a grail and his lord a silver salver, on which sat a smiling head.
Gawain turned back to Arthur. “I can only give you a year, my lord,” he said. He knew as he spoke the words that they were true. “A year to heal, and show them both your love.”
“That’s quite all right, my dear Gawain,” said Arthur kindly. “I am old, you know, and tired. If I can be rid of this dreadful wound and see the land grow green again, I will count myself well served.”
“Gawain?” asked Guinevere.
Arthur flapped a hand. “It is of no matter, dear,” he said. “Lancelot, help me up. I have a Christmas game to play, you see.”
“Your wound, my lord,” said Lancelot.
“It heals apace,” the king told him. “Perhaps within a week or so we can ride out, to hunt.”
“Well,” said Guinevere, “I am sick and tired of eating fish.”
“Precisely, my dear,” said the king. “Now, do I take the axe?”
Gawain nodded and smiled wide, and held it out.
“Gawain,” said Bertilak. “My love. You know that if you play this game, you must return with us from Camelot. A year from now you can give King Arthur the kind of end that is also a beginning, if in truth he merits it. Rex quondam, rexque futurus, so they say. Like many kings, I hear, he's cut-and-come-again. But you will stay with us, out in our green year.”
“We love you, Gawain,” said Lady Bertilak. “So we would let you live.”
Gawain shook his head. He thought of Mordred's head, pillowed in leaves. Of his mother's teasing voice beneath the Howe. Of his two youngest brothers, safe and free. Of Arthur, and his last year left of grace, of time lost and the green time yet to come, holding his own face out before him like a glass. He thought of laughter, three heads bent together by a fire.
“I was held by you both already,” Gawain said. “Long before this day. Love caught me by the window, in the doorway, in the greenwood dark.”
Bertilak grinned over at him; at his wife. "I think Morgan," he said, "may lose her wager after all."
"She always did underestimate her brother," said Lady Bertilak. "And her nephew."
Gawain turned back to Arthur. “So, my lord?” he asked. “Shall we play out a Christmas game?”