It had been Gawain's idea not to use the Round Table. The Christmastide feasting brought in lords and their retinues, churchmen, hedge knights, and more often than not fey and mysterious maidens from all corners of the kingdom, and as noble as the Round Table might be, it sat only fifty and no more-- though in truth, only twelve brother-knights had been chosen to sit there, and Gawain the youngest of them. To fill the Great Hall with the Round Table, and exclude all those who came to pay tribute and share these holy days with their liege, would be rude, unforgivably, whatever the ideal of the Table might be.
For the duration of the feast, they had returned to the older traditions – a high table on the dais, for the King's family alone, and the rest assembled at long tables that encircled the chamber. It made for a quieter dinner: Gaheris and Agravaine and Gawain, Guinevere and Arthur, Bishop Baldwin and Sir Yvaine, with Merlin lurking like a thundercloud beyond Yvaine, standing back in the corner away from his seat. Arthur, too, remained standing, talking with Merlin over the heads of Baldwin and Yvaine, blind to how half the room was turned to him uncertainly, neglecting their meals and wondering at his example.
Gawain sighed to himself. It was hard to remember, betimes, that the boyish Arthur was four years his elder. The King had been raised as a page and a squire, to expect the most trifling of knighthoods for himself, taught little of the ways of great princes, and he did not understand how his wild enthusiasms and his fresh ideas perturbed the court, kept them off-balance and always awaiting the next fancy. Arthur had sworn, after his first New Years' feast three winters' past, that he would not sit to his meal until another strange adventure had found his knights. It was, perhaps, impossible for the King to understand that to the assembled peers, Arthur's court was already a strange adventure. Now the tables had been laid for an hour and still Arthur would not sit, complaining to his white-bearded tutor that the promised marvel had yet to descend.
More than one of the knights at the lower tables looked abashed – as if it was a failing on their part, that they had not endured a sorcerous ordeal or undergone a holy quest whose telling would sate Arthur's wonder-lust. Sir Kay was grimacing around bites of roast.
When a knocking like the peal of thunder came at the doors to the Hall, Gawain saw no fear in the faces of the assembled knights, but rather only relief and contentment. Arthur began to sink sideways towards his seat, and Merlin glanced at the heavens and traced the sign of the cross in the air. A moment later, before Sir Bedivere the Marshal could rise to open the doors and announce whatever strange visitor had come to them, the doors burst open, and an apparition rode in. His war-horse picked its way in between the tables as though navigating between brambles on a forest path, until he stood at the center of the assembly.
Knight and horse both were green, in variegated shades but untouched by any other color. Though the horse wore no barding, by its build and its step it was plainly made for battle, and its rider likewise – a broad-shouldered man who would stand a head again taller beside any knight in the room. He, too, wore no mail or armor, but fine-embroidered feasting-clothes of emerald brocade, darker and richer than the green of his skin, like the underside of a leaf. His hair and beard, moss-green, veiled his face, hanging in braids that stretched down to his elbow. In one hand, he held a bough of holly, and in the other a great bronze axe, studded with green gems and with its haft enameled in green. The horse beneath him was dappled in lighter greens and darker, and the deep yew-needle green of its mane was plaited with ivy, where twined ropes of ivy made its bridle. A green banner with no emblem hung at the cantle of his saddle. Even the fur that lined his mantle had been dyed green, and it wasn't until his spurs flashed gold that any trace of another hue could be found.
Arthur's smile as he greeted the towering figure was broad and genuine. “Sir!” he said. “You are welcome in Camelot. I pray you, sit to feast with us, and tarry awhile, before discharging whatever errand has brought you here.”
The mounted man did not smile, nor, Gawain thought, give any fit response to an offer of hospitality, but only raised one eyebrow. “No,” he said. “My errand grants me no time for leisure, though it pleases me to hear that your court is as generous as men would have it. If your knights are likewise as worthy as rumor tells, as wealthy in courage and wit and courtesy, then you will have great cause to be proud of them today.”
Arthur stood still a single scant moment in thoughtful consideration, and when he addressed the knight again, his voice was cooler, but still tempered by the heat of his excitement. “If you have come to bring challenge or battle, good knight, you will not lack for eager foes.”
“I ride in peace,” the knight said, hefting the holly-bough he carried for emphasis. “If I came girt for war, with haubergeon, spear, and shield, I think that none of these beardless boys would stand against me. As you see, I am not dressed so, and so my errand is a peaceful one – a jest for a sporting time of year, if you will be gracious enough to grant me a boon.”
Gawain grit his teeth, and Agravaine beside him gripped a carving knife in white-knuckled apoplexy. Yvain, even-tempered as he was, had whitened and begun to push back his chair, and the whole company of knights made a clamor of outrage at the giant's insults.
Arthur held up a hand for silence, and silence came. A spark was in his eye now, the knightly fire roused within him, but he was a courteous king. Being foster-brother to Sir Kay, Gawain thought, would give any man a tolerance for ill speech. “Ask your boon,” the King said.
“I ask that the most courageous of your knights take up my axe – a gift to the one courageous enough to hold it—while I kneel before him, unarmored, as you see me now – and strike him the best blow he can. Provided, of course, that he vows he is willing, in a year and a day, to must meet me at my own home, and submit in a like manner to my blow in return.”
Where before the knights had been loud with their outrage, now they were silent. Gawain lost his anger for a moment – what kind of a fool was the Green Knight, to challenge a king in his hall, insult his knights, and then put himself under the stroke of an axe? He had heard tales of knights who, in black despair, had thrown themselves rashly into battle, or tilted until they died of it, but this would be no honorable death, no knightly suicide, if there was such a thing. Long seconds passed, and no-one stepped forward. Beside him, Agravaine shifted in his chair.
The Green Knight twisted his head, braids swaying, as he glanced about the room, then laughed.
"These are the worshipful knights of which I have heard so much laud? These are the best men who serve the High King, and defend the honor of his Queen? Where are your pride and your great feats of arms, now wrought false and hollow by a simple request? Who fears to receive a blow, when he may strike one first?”
With a violent motion, Arthur threw himself away from his seat, rounding the table before any could forestall him. “A knight may stand amazed at folly, and not yet fear it,” he said hotly. “If my court gave you a space of breath to repent your request, 'twas grace on their part, but uncouth as you are, it is my boon to give and I myself will grant it you!” He stepped down off the dais, glaring up now at the towering knight rather than meeting him levelly eye-to-eye, and strode forward, one hand rising from his side already to reach out for the bronze-bladed axe. The Green Knight smiled, a broad expression that revealed gem-green teeth, and swung himself down from his horse without relinquishing either axe or bough. Wordless, he flipped the axe in his hand, and presented the King with its haft. As Arthur gripped it, the room still seeming frozen in anticipation, Gawain flung himself up from his chair in an echo of the King.
“Your Majesty!” he called, praying that his tongue might move as swiftly as his mind now did. “Please, I beg you, permit me the honor of exchanging blows with our guest. It is not seemly for the King to have to answer such foolishness, or for this stranger to think your knights less bold. I am the youngest and least at the Round Table. If I may strike him, then it will be seen that any here would do the same. And if, by some fortune, he is able to return my stroke, the loss to the table will be felt the less.” To himself, he continued his reasoning. If this was sorcery or treachery -- as surely this knight who gave no name, showed no emblem, and carried on him no iron was a fey knight, and no right man at all -- he was the knight they could best afford to lose. For he remembered hearing tales of such knights, always garbed in a single hue, with wondrous strange arms, from his mother, Queen Morgause, who was well-studied in the arts of witchcraft and the secret lore of the land. If this was any manner of trap, baited for the King, better that he fall into it instead.
“He speaks well,” called Sir Bedivere, and Sir Lucan said likewise, until all the fellowship of the Round Table had put their voices behind Gawain's own, beseeching Arthur. The King's brow furrowed, and beside him the Green Knight looked about him with a lively amusement, but held his silence. “Come, then,” Arthur said after a moment, reluctantly, not allowing his anger to master his reason. “I give you my blessing.” Gawain hurried down to him, and Arthur passed him the axe, saying in an undertone as he did so “Strike well, nephew. Unless your blow falls ill, there is little doubt in me that you can abide any strike he may make in return.” Then Arthur mounted to the dais again, and the Green Knight stepped forward with a chuckle.
“Youngest among the company of these knights, perhaps,” he said. “But not least, I think. Let us make clear the bargain between us. First, I would hear your name.”
“Sir Gawain, King Lot's son, of Lothian and Orkney. As for the bargain, it is that you will submit to one blow from this axe now, the best I may strike, and in a year and a day I will the same – at your hall, unarmored, kneeling. With this same axe, or another?”
“The axe is yours, Sir Gawain, son of Lot, of Lothian and Orkney. At my home I have many others. And it pleases me well that you are the knight to match blows with me, I think. Strike, then, and should I afterward have power of speech left to me, I will tell where you may find me next year, and partake of my hospitality.” So saying, he knelt, laying down the holly at last, and reached back to part his braids and offer clear view of his neck. No fear or hesitation was in his motion, no sign that his death was upon him. Gawain turned the axe in his hands. A like blow, the knight had said, and a Christmas jest. Should he thereby be merciful in his swing, and hope for mercy in return? But there was no promise of it, and indeed, that might be the trick intended. Arthur's mercy and generosity was well known, and this knight had made mock of the virtues of Arthur's court. Better him than Arthur in this place, for certain.
He would trust to the strength of his own arms rather than the mercy of an insulting stranger. He raised the axe high, as he would to split a log, measured his stroke with a glance, and brought it down on the flesh of the Green Knight's neck. He expected to meet resistance, or find that the stroke would rebound, and that he was prepared for – not as much, the ease with which flesh parted, the way that the axe carved smooth even through the bones of the neck, and before he could pull his stroke, the axe-blade rang like a churchbell on the flagstones beneath them. The knight's body lurched, shedding blood like clear green sap – but blood, the same, by the thick smell of it that overlay any scent of roast fowl or fresh-baked bread in the hall. Even as the head struck the floor, however, and the body tilted forward, one hand outstretched and wound fingers in the braided hair. The body was not falling, but only leaning forward to recover its lost member.
It stood, still shedding blood, the drops of which became bright crimson the moment they touched to the floor, and lifted the head high beside it, as a knight lifts a trophy newly won in the joust.
“Well struck,” it said, eyes wandering a moment before they found Gawain. “I shall look for you in a year's time.” The voice was not deep and boisterous now, but thin and reedy. “I am called the Green Knight of the Green Chapel, and by asking after that name will you find me. Stint not your search, lest other men name you a recreant knight, but uphold your vow, Sir Gawain.”
With that, the corpse's other hand found its way to the pommel of his saddle, and, mounting swiftly, rode from the hall, head held before him as if to see the way.