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The Water-Horse

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The tapestry is Arthur's latest joke.

"In honour of Twelfth Night," the king says, ushering the court into the hall, "behold the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."

A rush of gold and brocade, elbows and swords, sends Gawain stumbling to the west wall. Titters flare around him, bee stings to his ego. He looks because he has to, because the court will study him as closely as they study his life woven across the wall. Tonight, he's the entertainment, the fool, the feast, so Gawain borrows Lancelot's stoic face and dons imaginary armour.

The tapestry's first panel shows the Green Knight on his knees before Gawain, who holds the axe high above his head so high that it seems divorced from the scene. Instead the focus falls on Gawain's arched body and the kneeling figure with his parted lips, a parody so grotesque that Gawain nearly rips the tapestry from the wall.

"No wonder the lady's seduction failed," Alisander crows, close enough to bump hips. "Her approach was too subtle."

Unfortunately, imaginary armour is thinner than vellum. "He's laughing," Gawain snaps, "not offering me oral satisfaction."

"Oh, he's laughing all right, imagining your turn with his big axe." Alisander has more teeth than a hungry fox and flaunts them in his grin. "`The Beheading Game'--now there's a metaphor I'll have to try it on the tavern wenches."

Easily amused, Arthur cackles hard enough to tilt his crown. Three months at court, and Alisander's already a favourite, with his dog-bark laugh and his ridiculous red-gold hair. Even the fickle queen, who can't stand Lancelot, finds Alisander occasionally charming. Gawain, on the other hand, would like to stab him through the heart. Repeatedly.

Especially now, as Alisander drinks in the second panel where Gawain sits in bed, star-covered shield clutched to his chest as the lady, her gown cut perilously low, lounges beside him, one hand extended. Through a window, Bertilak can be seen hunting a deer who wears the same wide- eyed, fearful expression as Gawain himself, while Morgan le Fay, disguised as an old crone, hovers just beyond the door.

"Gawain as Saint Cecilia! What admirable chastity. You could give Lancelot a run for his money." Alisander begins to sing with monkish solemnity, "Let my heart and my body be undefiled, O Lord--"

"I have a better one," Dagonet shouts, charging bullishly through the ranks to Bedivere's side, bells jangling madly. "Gawain was a virgin, a maid pure as you please. He kicked the lady from his bed, preferring her husband on his knees!"

"You're red as the harlot's dress," Alisander tells Gawain. "If it's any consolation, this is almost enough to make me blush, too." He taps the third panel, where Gawain and Bertilak follow the rules of the winnings-exchange, the deer's head on the table--except that instead of a light kiss on Bertilak's cheek, the two of them are locked in a passionate embrace. Behind his back Gawain holds the green belt, which curls like a snake in his fingers.

Alisander leans forward, studying the scene. "Clearly, you're very eager to `behead' him."

"It wasn't like that," Gawain says stiffly. "The lady kissed me on the cheek, and, according to the rules of the game, I returned it to him in the same fashion."

"He must've been disappointed that she didn't behead you."

"I'll behead you if you don't shut up." Gawain, ready to draw his sword and carve "PRICK" on Alisander's chest, pauses only as a hand clasps his shoulder from behind.

No. Don't let it be Lancelot. He's still in Gaul, slicing and dicing virgin-eating trolls--

"Save it for the battlefield." Lancelot is stony-calm as always, less a statue than a mosaic, pebbles in primary colours locked together. "It's not a night for blood."

Easy for him to say: no one has woven Lancelot's life into a series of perverse lies and exposed it to his hero, if Lancelot has a hero other than Arthur and God. Gawain hopes Lancelot is struck blind before he sees the fourth panel. There, Gawain's threaded twin kneels in a wilderness before his transformed host, his face raised in what looks like ecstasy. Bertilak, now green as the belt around Gawain's waist, holds his axe at half-mast, the blade aimed upward, the wooden handle targeting Gawain's mouth.

Guenevere, a sharp-beaked bird of paradise in blues and greens, flutters close to her husband. "Really, Arthur, this tapestry is entirely unfair to your poor nephew."

An unlikely champion, and Gawain is on the verge of gratitude when she adds, "Gawain is much more handsome than that. Here he looks like a delirious monkey."

"That's to protect him," Alisander says. "Show him pretty as he is, and, with those beheading skills, every man in the land will be after him."

Dagonet begins to sing again, using his sceptre for crude effect. "Gawain was so fair, though he had an axe to grind, that all the men in Britain wished to plant theirs in his behi--"

When Gawain lunges, Dagonet, the real monkey, swings to the rear of Lancelot, so that all Gawain sees of the fool is one yellow ass-ear and the waggling sceptre. Too bad that Lancelot can't block Dagonet's mocking voice; an elbow would do nicely.

"Save me, O Paragon of Virtue, from Gawain's wrath! I like my head too much to lose it. Besides, it's promised to a kitchen maid, who has promised me hers in return."

"Enough," Lancelot says. "This is the king's court, not a Paris brothel."

Guenevere sighs like her heart's splitting in two. "Always the kill-joy. You should be a priest, Lancelot; your virtue's wasted on a knight." She follows this with something low in Welsh.

A sick blue light flashes in Lancelot's eyes, and he flushes. "I only meant, my Queen--"

"I know what you meant. To rob us of our fun." Guenevere's gold ring glints as she lays her hand on Arthur's arm. "Since our moral conscience has spoken, let's eat."

"Guenevere," Arthur says as he leads her to the dais, "you shouldn't be so cruel, not with Lancelot off to Ludlow tomorrow to kill a monster in our name."

And, just like that, Gawain is forgotten....Except by Alisander who whispers, grinning, "You. Me. Tonight. The promised beheading."

"Choke on a lark's tongue."

"I can handle a lot more than that. By the look of things, so can you." Alisander ducks Gawain's fist, then darts off to sit by the eager Lady Isabeau.

It's the eve of Epiphany, and Gawain's revelation is simple: he doesn't belong here.

#

Two days later, there's a tournament at Chester, and the morning passes in a blare of trumpets, a flurry of pinions, and a shameful defeat at Alisander's hand.

True, Gawain defeats King Agwisance of Ireland, Sir Sagramore le Desirous, Sir Meliot of Logris and Sir Galleron of Galway, but the bruises on his hip and shoulder colour his victories a painful blue.

Hate is wrong. All the priests say it, speak of hate as the gateway to Hell, venom in the Devil's breath, but Gawain still dreams of Alisander's naked body cut into small pieces and fed to a hungry dragon. The glee on Alisander's face when he felled him, the mock-guilt when he offered his hand...Dismemberment is too good for him. A slow fire licking a bound Alisander from his feet to his stupid mane--marginally better.

Even now, jousting with Sir Griflet, who has been unhorsed only once and then by Lancelot, Alisander doesn't falter: a quick twist, a sharp thrust with his lance, and Griflet's sprawled in the dust. Even his horse isn't winded, just stands calmly in its holly-embroidered coat as Alisander slides to the ground, flipping up his visor before helping Griflet to his feet.

Worst of all, the prick wears a green ribbon tied around his arm, and when he rides to the scaffold where Gawain watches with Arthur, Guenevere, and her women, Alisander has the balls to bow at the waist before him.

Arthur honours Alisander with a guffaw, while Gawain grits his teeth.

"You appear to have a suitor," Guenevere says when the cheers die down. "He's a good match: the Lady Isabeau tells me he has a castle in the North and land worth forty thousand pounds."

"I only hope that a jealous Green Knight doesn't burst in during the wedding to challenge Alisander for your hand." Arthur is a good man and a good king, but he flogs jokes like dead horses.

"I'd rather marry a plague-ridden donkey."

"Don't be too hasty," Arthur says. "If he beds like he jousts, you're a lucky man."

More jokes flow until Guenevere puts a hand to her forehead, closing her eyes. "Too much sun, I think. With your permission, my Lord, I'll excuse myself from the feast tonight." When her ladies sigh in unison, she smiles briefly. "Don't worry: since I'll be in bed, I won't need attending."

Arthur pats her blue silk sleeve. "Keep at least a couple with you for company."

"Their chatter would only make my head ache worse. I'll be fine."

It's the first time that Gawain has envied a headache.

#

To transform ugliness to beauty, the cooks have reattached the peacock feathers. Obscenely alive, they shimmer from the backs of carrion, and one eye catches Gawain's. When it winks through a trick of smoke, he looks away.

The minstrels stand before the new tapestry, red livery against red wool and so absorbed by it, barely moving as they play a slow wistful motet, the music of the spheres if Death kicked them into motion. Arthur would object to the song if he were here, but Kay, always rude, has tugged him laughing from the hall. Everything is urgent to the seneschal; everything is comic to the king.

Another ill-matched pair sits near the dais at a side-table: Dagonet, his hood with its ass ears slipping low over his forehead, the bells at his wrists and ankles chiming at every enthusiastic toast, and one-handed Bedivere, who has stared into the bloody maw of the giant on Mont Saint- Michel and now smiles for Dagonet alone.

Dagonet knows it, and his toasts grow louder and more foolish, draining his cup in honour of Sir Dodinal's wart, God's private parts, Morgan's wrinkled tits, though his voice drops a little at the last one. Even a fool knows to mock a witch discreetly.

The back of Gawain's neck aches, and he downs more wine. Tonight, there's no one to stop him: the queen, who keeps order with pretty sarcasm, is locked in her room, while Lancelot, who teaches virtue by example, is still off protecting Ludlow from a two-headed beast.

With the third of his worst critics otherwise occupied, Gawain signals for more wine, his sixth or seventh glass, so strong and sweet his stomach rolls like a wave and the smoke forms into a thousand swimming fish. To calm the ocean, he shifts on the bench and sees the lady Isabeau stroking the blade of her knife, her face grey as her gown's fur trim. Alisander, of course.

A dancing girl reclines in his lap, one full breast cupped in his hand while she noses his throat and pets his long hair. Gawain hopes her name is Delilah. Somehow he ends up staring too long, and Alisander catches him, mouthing, "You had your chance," before Gawain can look away. Bastard.

Even if Gawain wanted him, which he emphatically, absolutely, positively does not, everyone knows that lust brings chaos. All the best knights, like Lancelot, reject love because it fogs their path, blinding them to the virtues of loyalty, honour, and truth. If the pressure builds too high, then a wife's allowed, a good sober woman who'll produce strong sons. Gawain's mother gave into lust, and look what happened.

At that moment, Dagonet shouts another toast. "...and praise be to Sir Gawain, the cloth- makers' friend, whose honest cowardice is now the fashion!" He grabs Bedivere's green girdle and wraps it around his head like a wimple before performing what he joyously introduces as "The Dance of the Seven Belts."

Gawain is picturing Dagonet's head on a plate when Alisander calls, "Three kisses to your neighbor in Gawain's name!" Alisander winks like a peacock feather, then pulls the girl down, while around him everyone follows his command as if angels carry his voice.

Fallen angels, maybe.

Bors, who'd been warring with a lamprey in galytyne, plants a trio of sloppy kisses on Gawain's cheek, then says not unkindly, "Don't look so wounded. It's all in jest, and, besides, you did well for one so young. I would've taken the belt myself and still flinched at the blade."

In the past year, Bors has slain two giants, a dragon, a boar, and four men; he wouldn't flinch at a blade wielded by the Devil. Effortlessly brave, just like Lancelot. Neither imagines death as anything but an easy transition from Arthur's army to God's. Shortly after Gawain's return from the Green Chapel, his pride scarred as his neck, Gawain had asked Lancelot what ran through his mind before a battle.

Lancelot, surveying the preparations for the Assumption Day tournament, had answered without turning from the window. "How best to serve the one who rules me."

That's how life is for men like Lancelot and Bors: a narrow window high in Arthur's castle, a straightforward view organized by iron bars. With his eyes closed, Gawain kisses Bors three times on the cheek.

"I guess I'm too late," Alisander says in his ear. "I threw that poor girl off for nothing."

Startled, Gawain nearly falls from his seat. "I'm surprised you could tear yourself away."

"Jealous?"

"Don't be an idiot."

"Nice words from the master of eloquence."

"I save that for those who deserve it."

Alisander leans uncomfortably close, smelling of wine and honey. "And just what do you think I deserve?"

Gawain's about to reply, to suggest a creative way for Alisander to fuck himself, possibly with his lance, when the music suddenly stops. Everything does, the hall quiet as a tomb. For a long, stomach-knotting beat, Gawain thinks that the Green Knight has returned, come to shame him once again.

It's Arthur.

The fool has become the king, taller somehow, straighter, imposing as the statue in the courtyard. This is the man who pulled the sword from the stone, the one destined to unite the realm of Britain, the one Gawain came here to serve. He's too white, though, as if his red cloak has leeched his blood, while Kay at his side is grim as thunder.

"Lancelot," someone whispers. "The beast at Ludlow..."

Arthur strides to the dais and faces the room. His voice is strong at first, but breaks at the end. "It's not Lancelot. It's the queen. Guenevere has been kidnapped."

It's as if a murder of crows has flown into the hall: a dark cloud, shrill cries, doom.

Bedivere jumps to his feet, upending a cup of wine, shouting above the fracas. "What happened?"

With a raised hand, Arthur stops the noise. "Kay went to check on her, and her room was empty. We've searched the castle and the grounds, and she's gone."

"It could be Meleagant." Bedivere folds his left arm across his chest, tapping his mouth with a closed fist. "He lost today at the tournament and left spouting threats. He's a spoiled brat, so I didn't take him seriously, but now....With your leave, I'll follow him to Gore."

Bors, vibrating with whirlwind energy, steps forward. "I vote for King Rience. There are rumours that he's stirring up the Welsh against you. I'll go west."

Still wrapped in his cloak of dignity, Arthur is nodding. "Good suggestions, both. You'll leave within the hour. Any other ideas?"

There's a third possibility, so Gawain rises. "We can't ignore your sister. Morgan has no love for this court, and she might've arranged the kidnapping. Not to kill the Queen, since she didn't kill me, but to shame you. The castle where I met her isn't far from here, so I'll hunt for her at Hautdesert."

"I hate to admit it, but you're right, Gawain. Only..." The line of Arthur's mouth shifts. "Are you sure you're up to this? Morgan is unpredictable, and--"

"I'll go with him," Alisander says quickly. "I know the area well, and if Morgan's there, we'll find her and bring the queen home safely."

"So be it."

At Arthur's words, the great hall empties.

#

There are no stars in the night sky. Could be that God's gathered them like marbles, withholding their light until Guenevere is found. Gawain hopes that he's up to this cosmic exchange.

He rides quickly on Gringolet, breathing ice-layered air over a road reduced to hard lumps. Gawain feels like the road, emotions frozen inside him; if he speaks, his words will come out in earthy chunks. Even Alisander is quiet for once, a dark shape ahead.

They travel along the River Dee, which lodges an old song in Gawain's head: "There was a jolly miller once, lived on the river Dee. `I care for nobody, no, not I, if nobody cares for me...'" Over and over, but it keeps the melting at bay. He doesn't realize that he's been humming the tune until Alisander slows, allowing him to catch up.

"Pretty cheerful for a man on a dangerous quest with someone he hates. Or are you pretending that I'm Saint Lancelot and you're his lowly squire eager to polish his sword?"

"I'm pretending that your horse has tripped and sent you tumbling into the river."

"What if I pretend to be Lancelot?" Alisander, who has been slouching on his horse, sits ramrod- straight and tilts up his chin. "I am Lancelot, champion of virtue, upholder of morality. I can slay a beast with one glance from my steely eyes, blind wizards with the shining gold of my hair. All who see me tremble with awe, especially Gawain, who dreams of me nightly, though I'm too superior to notice--"

"The king already has a fool," Gawain says, and digs in his spurs to ride at full gallop. The salve he applied to his tournament bruises has worn off, and he feels each jolt of the ride, but keeps up the pace, letting the wind blow away his thoughts, until Gringolet is panting.

If there's any justice in the world, he lost Alisander a few turns back, or maybe a bear ventured from the woods, knocked him down, and is now happily gnawing on his bones.

No such luck.

"Not amused by my impersonation? I thought it was pretty good, myself."

"You're just jealous of him." Gawain waits for the denial, shoring up proof of Lancelot's vast superiority.

"Sometimes," Alisander says thoughtfully. "But, then again, sometimes not. He could use some of your qualities."

It's Gawain who nearly tumbles from his horse. "My qualities? Have you been at Merlin's potions?"

"Sure, you've got lots of bad ones. You're impatient, bratty, rude, impulsive, with a tendency to sulk--"

"Feel free to drop dead any time."

"--and you don't take criticism well. On the other hand, you're loyal to a fault--"

"So is Lancelot. He'd die for the king. He'd die for any of us."

"--and you have imagination. Have you ever wondered why Lancelot and the others never show fear? It's because they can't conceive of it, which makes them mostly predictable. You're not like them. This is the best part of you, although you can't see that."

"God will find you very handy on Judgement Day--or he would, if you weren't shovelling coal in Hell."

"See? Imagination."

"Seriously, Alisander, are you physically capable of not talking?"

"The story goes that I came talking from the womb, and my mother wanted to slide me back in."

When Gawain imagines Alisander as a baby, he sees only a large mouth swaddled in red-gold hair. "You were probably criticizing the delivery."

"And you came out cooing?"

"If I did, it's only because I didn't know any better." Then he clamps his lips shut.

"Come on, spill. We've got a two-day journey ahead of us, so you may as well share your darkest secrets. I promise not to mock you. Much."

"Fine. I was a bastard, so my mother gave me to a merchant with a box containing gold and a letter explaining the circumstances. Love affair, shame, the usual deal."

"Ah," Alisander says, like Gawain has revealed something significant. "Sorry. That wasn't mockery; I was just clearing my throat. Go on."

"One day the merchant travelled by ship to Narbonne and left me on the boat. Stupid move, leaving the ship unguarded, because a fisherman came and stole everything he could carry, including me. It made him rich, and he took me to Rome when I was seven, which I hated. I didn't know that King Lot was my father and Arthur my uncle until a couple of years ago. I've been with Arthur ever since, and will be to the end."

"Yes, loyalty, all very good, but, honestly, I'm trying to picture you in decadent Rome. Gawain the Wants-to-Be-Good, lying on a purple couch, fed grapes by adoring admirers--"

"It wasn't like that. I didn't fit in. Rome is all about thousand-year-old rules. You can't take a step without breaking one, and the Romans aren't very forgiving. It's different in England. It's green. People laugh. It's not flawless, and I still don't fit in, not really, but..." Gawain shrugs before remembering his blue shoulder. "I can breathe here."

"Gawain..."

Something's different in Alisander's voice, but Gawain refuses to look at him, instead facing the river. The moon has struggled out, its face reflected in the silver surface. Hypnotic. "My foster-father used to tell me stories about the water, the creatures that lived in it." One of his only good memories, sitting cross-legged at Viamundus' sandalled feet in the old cottage by the sea, eating honeyed toast, before they went to Rome and everything changed.

"What's your favourite? There's always a favourite. A sad, beautiful mermaid who loved a handsome prince from afar, and gave up years of his life to be with her?"

"The Water-Horse. It had webbed feet, enormous eyes, and a slick coat, and could change form at will. The only way to escape was to recognize it for what it was, by a piece of seaweed in his hair."

"What if you recognized it, but didn't want to escape?"

"Then you'd die."

The night is beginning to thin, Prime soon, and Gawain now stifles a yawn for every second step that Gringolet takes. When he fails, his breath forms odd shapes: a lute-playing pig, an arrow- pierced saint, an axe-wielding goblin...

"Don't fall asleep just yet," Alisander says. "There's a village not far ahead, Saughall. You can sleep there for a few hours."

"I'm all right."

"After Saughall we'll be riding into the Wirral, Gawain. Remember the forest? Wild men, thieves, and wolves? You won't be much use if you're passed out on your horse, or," he adds, waving at Gringolet's drooping head, "if your horse passes out on you."

"Don't be so reasonable. It's irritating."

"Just part of my charm."

"Charming as a thorn in my ass," Gawain says, less harshly than he means.

When Alisander just grins, Gawain forgets himself and grins back.

#

Saughall consists of an abbey, a dozen cottages, three mangy dogs, and an inn, all ranged around a square with a stone cross--except the dogs, who dart between the horses, barking at Alisander.

"I'm very attractive to strays," he says, jumping from his horse to pet them. The three throw themselves at him, licking him everywhere. "Don't hesitate to join them."

Gawain rolls his eyes as he climbs from Gringolet, shaking the cramps from his limbs. That's when the sun hits the painted sign hanging outside the inn. A knight with skin the colour of new leaves. "Is this your idea of a joke?"

Alisander throws up his hands. "Hey, I didn't name the place."

The inn is blessedly warm, and Gawain's blood thaws. A tiny woman with a turnip face shows them into an even tinier room on the second floor, just a bed, basin, and chest, a low cross- beamed ceiling, but it's clean with logs in the fireplace.

"I was scared when you knocked at the door," she tells them. "Thieves have been coming down from the woods. Just last week a pack of them broke into Old Meg's cottage, killed her son, and robbed her blind. Blinder, really, since she lost her sight years back. I was happy to see such a pair of brothers as you." She promises quiet, then totters away.

"Go to bed, Gawain" Alisander says. "I'll start the fire." Gawain has just removed the last of his clothes when Alisander turns around, brushing off his hands. He stares at Gawain's tournament bruises. "Did I do that to you? Leave those marks when we fought?"

"I've had worse."

The floor is very cold. That's why Gawain can't move; the wooden boards are warm where he stands, and another step will chill him, even with the fire blazing, sending licks of heat up his thighs.

"You look like you did in the tapestry." Alisander's arm is still extended.

"I wasn't expecting the lady to come in. Not to my bedroom. Not--"

"I didn't mean with the lady," Alisander says, not pointing now, but reaching. "I mean when you were on your knees before Bertilak."

Gawain, who should be better at rejecting advances, studies the folds of Alisander's red tunic. "I'd better get some sleep. Guenevere needs us."

"Guenevere can take care of herself."

Gawain takes the step, which isn't cold after all, but toward the bed, not Alisander. "I bet I'll be dreaming before my head hits the pillow." His yawn is loud, theatrical, and half real as he huddles under blankets scratchy as a beard.

Sleep refuses to play along, and Gawain listens as Alisander disrobes, muted clangs and soft rustles. A sudden brightness when the bed-curtain opens, a reminder that Gawain has settled on the wrong side, then darkness, straw sighing, as Alisander slips in beside him. Gawain feigns sleep with slow breaths.

"An old lover of mine," Alisander whispers, "used to say that there's nothing more tempting than a sleeping man."

Gawain's eyes open wide. "I'm awake. What happened to her?"

"She left me last year. Sounds like a ballad, doesn't it? `My sweetheart left me all alone...'"

"How come?"

"I like that you can't conceive of a reason."

"I just meant--"

"I know what you meant, Gawain." Alisander's teeth shine in the gloom. "She told me that she could imagine only one person I might love as much as I love myself, and it wasn't her."

"Was she right?"

"Yes."

"I wish you much happiness and a dozen plump children," Gawain says, then rolls over hard enough to make the bed groan and his hip ache.

"What's the matter, Gawain? Angry because you thought I was in love with you?"

"Don't be an ass."

"How about a goodnight kiss, then? To show there are no hard feelings?"

Gawain flips awkwardly back, words already spilling as he props himself up on one elbow and glares through the wispy dark. "You've got to be joking. I don't even like you. You have the balls to criticize Lancelot, and you can't even be loyal in love. You're the most selfish, twisted-- "

"Then let's play our old game: you pretend I'm Lancelot, and I'll pretend you're--"

Furious, Gawain only kisses him to shut Alisander's smug, pretty mouth, to shake Alisander's control, to...

It's the world's most miscalculated punishment. His surge of triumph at Alisander's gasp melts as Alisander's tongue slides over his, leaving him without intention beyond the kiss. The kiss, and Alisander's skin, smooth as sun-heated stone under his hands. No, not stone, slicker, more pliable, especially below his back, cupped tightly as Gawain presses up.

He's unlocked and open, wrapped in Alisander's hair, his arms, taken somewhere deep and warm. All he can do is kiss and touch, be kissed and touched, be touched there, Alisander's hot hand between them, around him. Creation must be like this, a flow of everything from nothing, and, God, it's good, floating through green darkness--

"No," Gawain says. "No." And he scrambles away, off the bed, crouching on the floor like an animal.

"Gawain--"

"Fuck off. Just fuck off and leave me alone." He huddles near the fire, cold and hot.

"At least take a blanket."

When Alisander tosses one to him, Gawain grabs it and crawls into a corner, face to the wall. The solid embrace of wood and plaster reassures him, halts the shattering. That's the purpose of rules: to keep you whole, sane, rational. So you won't know you're empty and alone and so hungry it hurts.

He wants to explain this, put it into words to erase the look on Alisander's face, the white shock, but can't, just lies there silent and shaking instead.

Time creeps along without bringing sleep, though Gawain's tired to death. Stupid to still want what he refused, not just the satisfaction, but the comfort of Alisander's body against his. And it seems like he wants this loud enough to hear, even when the words stay buried deep, because there's a creak and a whisper of cloth, the clap of soles against wood, then another.

Without speaking, with the careful, deliberate gestures of a priest during mass, Alisander raises Gawain's blanket and lies against him. When, with the same careful deliberation, he places his arm around Gawain's waist, Gawain takes Alisander's hand in his.

Finally, sleep comes.

#

They leave Saughall at midday without sharing more than a handful of sentences.

Gawain can't find the right pattern of words, knowing only that he's on the edge of awareness. That he's also on the edge of a forest is a cheap coincidence, and he thumbs his nose at God. An error in a lifetime of them, because shortly after he and Alisander pass under the shadow of the Wirral a quartet of men appears on horseback, swords drawn, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse after a particularly busy year.

"There's a toll," the leader says, "if you want to pass." He has beetles in place of eyes, and a nose like a leek.

"Funny," Alisander replies, sword already in hand. "I was about to say the same to you. These are my woods."

The second one, like a dwarf with his squat form and hairy face, snaps, "Liar! No one owns them."

"Then you can't very well demand a toll."

The leader refuses to submit to Alisander's logic. "The toll's for protection. There's a great green demon who lives in this forest, worse than all the dragons and trolls combined. Even Sir Lancelot himself would flee from him."

"Now there's an image nearly worth a piece of gold," Alisander says. "So how exactly will you protect us from this green demon? Terrify him with your appalling fashion sense? Force submission with your foul breath?"

"Just give us your gold," the dwarf snarls, his teeth like rotten graves, "or we'll cut out your smart tongue and have our way with your pretty cousin."

Alisander, who has obviously lost his mind, just smiles pleasantly. "He is pretty, isn't he? Not so sure about my smart tongue, though. Oh, it's witty enough, I suppose, but I doubt it would do well at the University of--"

"Enough of this game-playing." The leader raises his weapon, its blade stained a dark brown. "We'll just take what we want, your money and your whore."

They're about to move when Alisander cries, "Wait! I'd like to propose an exchange. You see, I happen to know the green man's secret. I'll tell you on one condition: that you let us pass."

"Alisander--"

Alisander winks at Gawain and gives a tiny shake of his head. "My friend doesn't want me to reveal the secret, so you know it has to be a good one."

"If we had the secret, we'd be safe," the third thief says, rubbing his finger-long chin. "No more looking over our shoulder."

The leader's more cautious, the shells of his beetle eyes twitching. "It's a trick."

"There's two of us to four of you," Alisander points out. "Even if I managed to kill you--and I'm not very good with my sword, to be honest--three of you would survive. And my friend here's even worse than I am, so it's a smart deal all around. Now send me your best swordsman, and I'll whisper the secret in his ear."

"We'd be fools to trust this one," the fourth man hisses to his companions. "He's got a foxy look about him."

"You're a suspicious bunch." Alisander sighs, then throws his sword to the ground. "There. Now who wants to hear the green man's secret?"

"Alisander," Gawain says, more urgently now. "Let's just--"

Alisander shakes his head again. "What's the matter?" he asks the leader. "Scared of an unarmed man? You'll be booted from the robbers guild."

The four have a hurried conference, then the leader slowly rides toward Alisander. When they're aligned, the man's nag sniffing the tail of Alisander's horse, Alisander leans over, whispering in the man's ear. The thief's eyes go wide and he recoils, ready to dig in his heels, when there's a silver flash, a spurt of red, and his head topples to the ground.

A rush of hooves, a whirring sound, and the dwarf's head joins his friend's, mouth agape.

Alisander whistles. The long-chinned thief's horse pricks up its ears, then, despite his rider's efforts, trots to Alisander's side. A third head falls.

Gawain takes care of the fourth one, beheading him with a single blow, then turns to Alisander, who's wiping the blade of an axe on the leader's worn grey cloak. "What the hell...? Where did the axe come from? And what did you tell him? He looked scared to death."

"The truth, of course."

#

As the sun fades, so does the path. The late afternoon's cold enough to freeze a dragon's breath, and a wolf howls a complaint. The shadows grow tall as a giant, the oaks thicker here, mixed with hazel and hawthorn, dead moss trailing like cobwebs from their branches. A swamp bubbles on the right, belching yellow gas, and Gawain almost misses a marker that he left the last time: the body of an ogre, dried to a pile of bones.

Not long now.

Last year, riding between these snow-splashed trunks, Gawain, numb with cold and dread, had prayed to God, and a castle had sprung up before him. Simple cause and effect, and he'd believed it. Today, he wonders if someone else had been watching him, hidden in the trees, disguised as one, an axe transformed as a branch.

Alisander suddenly breaks off his humming. "Are you ready, Gawain?"

"The Green Knight could've killed me," Gawain says thoughtfully. "I cut off his head like it was nothing, and he owed me the same. He owed me worse, after I broke the terms of our exchange and kept the belt."

"Maybe he liked your kisses and your struggle to be good. And maybe he cared more for the game than for its rules."

As the ground crests like a wave, the castle appears, shining from a plateau. Hautdesert.

"Or," Gawain adds, "he's biding his time before he finishes the job."

#

The gates are open, the drawbridge extended like a hand to greet them. No porter calls as they ride across, under the raised portcullis; no groom appears when they dismount in the courtyard. Just a deep valley of quiet.

"Maybe I was wrong about Morgan," Gawain says uncertainly. "The castle looks abandoned."

The quiet snaps. Stones kicked aside, the heavy tread of two sets of feet or more. Hard to tell with the echoes as the noise ricochets off the chalky stone walls.

Gawain draws his sword, tasting his heart, picturing scythe-wielding Death holding hands with a green devil, a flame-eyed witch arm in arm with a ghoul. Beside him, Gringolet whinnies, while Alisander doesn't move at all. They wait under a rose and black sky.

Clop. Clop. Clop.

The hairs raise on the back of Gawain's neck where the Green Knight's axe nicked him, and he grips the hilt tighter. Then, with an impressive sense of dramatic timing, a horse wanders from a darkened doorway. Not even a Water-Horse, only a black-maned bay who stares at them with liquid eyes.

"Watch out, Gawain! It might nuzzle you to death."

The horse ambles over to Alisander, nudging his hand. It wears no coat with a crest to indicate its owner, just a tatty brown blanket.

"She must've broken free from her tether," Gawain says. "At least now we know we're not alone."

"You're more right than you know." The amusement fades from Alisander's voice. "Come inside, Gawain. It's time."

Leaving the horses to wander at will, Gawain walks with him to the centre of the courtyard, turning left to open the massive doors of the castle's great hall.

Inside, a single torch burns in a sconce near the entrance, casting feeble light onto the tiled floor, the gold vines on the green walls, the bare table on the dais. Gawain remembers the last time he was here, the hall crowded with richly-dressed courtiers, minstrels playing in the gallery, an army of servants carrying plates of roasted boar and jugs of red wine, Bertilak seated like a king beside him. There is nothing more lonely than an empty hall.

"What now?" Gawain asks.

"You have to be quiet until I say," Alisander tells him, "or you'll ruin everything."

There are two staircases leading from the deserted hall: one rising to the west, to the solar where Gawain slept a year ago, and one rising to the east where Bertilak slept. They go west, Alisander leading, Gawain at his heels.

Something is waiting for them, and this time it's not a horse. Five steps up, and Gawain can hear it breathing, short, harsh rasps. Other sounds too, thick wet ones, and he pictures a dragon, a demon, a giant snake. His heart's crashing against his chest, urging a run down the stairs, out of the castle, somewhere else, anywhere safe.

Near the top step, instead of running, Gawain pushes past Alisander, prepared to meet his fate.

It's not what he expects.

At first Gawain thinks, impossibly, that he and Alisander are the lovers naked on the bed. Then he recognizes the man's broad shoulders, the gold ring of the woman with her arms locked around his neck.

"I love you," Lancelot says at every thrust. "I love you."

Guenevere's cries change into words, the same Welsh phrase she spoke to Lancelot at the tapestry. Then they kiss, and the only sound is of their bodies joining.

The truth takes awhile to assemble, then it's as clear as a manuscript page. There was never a kidnapped queen, never a monster in Ludlow, never a knight more virtuous than the rest, just a ruse concocted by two lovers so they could meet for this.

The laugh bubbles up inside him, unreleased only because Alisander takes his free hand and gently leads him away, back down the stairs and into the ghostly hall.

"What did she say to Lancelot?" Gawain finally asks. "Do you know?"

"It's from an old song. She called him her heart-thief."

"He's betraying Arthur. It's treason. Lancelot...Lancelot is committing treason." It's like learning that God is in league with the devil, or that God never existed at all.

"He's tried to fight it," Alisander says. "So has she."

"He's supposed to be perfect. If Lancelot's not, how am I supposed to be?"

"Don't you see the comfort in that, Gawain?"

"Why do you keep fucking up my life?"

Alisander says nothing.

"This is a test. Another goddamn test." Gawain aims his sword at Alisander's heart. This is how it should end, Alisander impaled, life back to normal "You want me to prove...I don't know. That I'm no better or worse than anyone else. That Lancelot isn't, either. Fine. Lesson learned. Now would you go to hell?"

"It's not about tests anymore."

"Then what else?"

When Alisander goes quiet a second time, Gawain drops his sword and punches him. Hard, right on the chin. There's a satisfying crack, bone against bone, a primitive pleasure that lasts until Alisander's head hits the stone floor, and he goes still.

Then the pleasure skirts into a fear stark as winged death. Around him the room stretches then shrinks, distorting everything except Alisander's pale face. Winter sneaks into the hall, over Gawain's skin, into his teeth and bones, and his hands shiver as he gathers Alisander into his arms like a child.

Only one place to go, and Gawain takes the eastern stairs two at a time. "Don't die," he says. "Don't die. Don't die." Other words, too, under the clatter of his boots on the wood.

Inside the solar, twilight-dark, he kicks shut the door and--

Alisander opens one bright eye. "I've heard that kisses have very powerful healing properties."

"You bastard!" Gawain throws him onto the bed, which heaves a faint layer of dust. "You lying, deceiving bastard!"

"You should know by now that I'm very hard to kill."

"Did the punch hurt at least?"

"Sorry."

They stare at each other, Alisander sprawled on the bed, Gawain standing by the door. Outside, the wind hisses, flicking snowflakes against the window.

"Gawain, do you know who I am?"

The question hangs in the air like a star. Like the blade of an axe. Like a bob of holly.

Gawain sits on the bed to pull off his boots, throwing them against the door. "You're the most frustrating man I've ever met." His armour follows, his belt, tunic and hose, until there's nothing left.

Alisander still hasn't moved, though two wall sconces and the fire in the grate blaze to life. The smoke is the thinnest grey, spiced with powdered leaves and dead butterflies.

"Fine. You're the English Water-Horse. The Green Man. Bertilak. Now would you take your goddamn clothes off?"

"I asked you before," he says, "but you never answered me. Are you ready?"

"Yes."

Alisander twitches, then shakes, faster and faster, until it seems he'll explode into a thousand pieces. When it's over, Bertilak lies naked in his place, skin the colour of grass, limbs like branches. His hair, though curly still, is now a seaweed shade, and Gawain moves nearer to stroke it.

"I like this better. But two questions: why `Alisander'? And why did you choose the other form? I mean, Alisander was handsome enough, but--"

"Oh, Gawain," Bertilak says, shaking with mirth, "look in a mirror sometime." Then he captures one of Gawain's long curls in his hand and draws him close. "And `Alisander'--I thought that was obvious. You and your old shield with its endless knot, Alisander and his solution to the Gordian one."

"Are you going to kill me now?"

"I know a better way to make you die."

He licks Gawain's mouth, just licks like he's tasting him, like he's never tasted him before. And maybe he hasn't, because Bertilak is and isn't Alisander, who was wine and honey where Bertilak is earth and rain. The kiss is deep as a river, as a grave, this push of Bertilak's tongue, and that floating sense returns, Gawain's mind peeled from his body until he's nothing but skin.

Bertilak's hands roam over him, past old bruises and ticklish collarbones, across stiff nipples and flat belly, down hip bones and--

"Oh, God," Gawain moans, as Bertilak strokes him.

"Don't pray to Him. He has nothing to do with this."

Blasphemy, so maybe Gawain will burn, but fire is relative and this one wins. The heat...There's never been anything hotter than that slow-moving hand, the thumb sliding over the head of his cock, the tug up and the pull down.

With his tongue inside Bertilak's mouth, Gawain imagines his cock in there, licked and sucked, his whole body flushing as he pictures Bertilak's cock against his own tongue. And he has to have it, has to, has to, so he pulls back and says, "I want..."

Bertilak simply threads his fingers through Gawain's hair and urges him down. With the colour of his skin, the damp smoothness, it's like swimming in summer, and, kneeling between Bertilak's thighs, Gawain doesn't even hesitate, just grasps and licks. And licks. And licks.

Because this is about knowing someone, he realizes, not just some lewd animal thing, knowing their secret taste and secret sounds, like Bertilak's sucked-in breath, how his eyes glow like red stars. Sacred, like taking the host in your mouth, but better, real and not a metaphor.

"Yes," Bertilak says. "That's the look. I nearly took you when I saw the tapestry, when you were on your knees in the woods. That look..." He groans and touches Gawain's cheek, then traces Gawain's lips as they circle the head of his cock.

And Gawain learns another secret, one even Bertilak doesn't know, about the mirrored look on Bertilak's face, startled and overwhelmed. The one that Gawain causes with only his tongue.

As he opens for more, sliding Bertilak's cock deeper, teasing with his fingers, Gawain realizes a secret about himself: that he wanted this all along. Wanted it from the time that Bertilak burst into Arthur's hall with his axe and arrogance, his big laugh and exotic skin. And everyone knew, even before the tapestry, and maybe the tapestry itself was Arthur trying to show him what Gawain was too stupidly blind to see.

There's no shame, just this hot rush along his cock, like the flames are creeping from the fireplace to lick him there, and he gorges himself on Bertilak, swallows him deep, then dares to hold Bertilak's balls in his hand, full and soft. He wants to lick them, too, suck them, and breaks away to do it, a salty heaviness in his mouth.

Bertilak calls out in an unknown language, words like the sound of sap moving through trees. Gawain can feel them running through his own veins, translated by his blood, what Guenevere said to Lancelot, or like it, and his anger at Lancelot dissolves. Their thing, this thing, between them goes beyond loyalty, beyond God. It simply is, with its own set of rules that aren't rules at all, and Gawain takes Bertilak's cock back into his mouth.

Soon now, with Bertilak's thighs beginning to shake, his hands returning to Gawain's hair. Gawain watches him, noticing for the first time that his lashes are long and green as pine needles, that his irises are threaded with gold, that his mouth with its deeply curved upper lip is shaped like a heart.

That heart-shaped mouth is gathering the way a wolf's does at the moon, Bertilak's muscles coiling, his blood rumbling. Gawain can barely breathe, panting around the thick shaft, then Bertilak chokes out his name, eyes like suns.

Liquid that tastes amber courses down Gawain's throat. It's like the first swallow of strong wine, a warm spreading headiness, and Gawain drinks Bertilak dry. But not soft--even Gawain laps up the final drops, Bertilak is still hard and swollen.

"Maybe you really have been at Merlin's potions," Gawain says, and fits himself into Bertilak's open arms.

"This body does have a few advantages. That's the only reason I don't hate it right now."

"Hate it? How could you--"

Bertilak kisses him until Gawain's pooled across the sheets, then begins to explore with his mouth. Everywhere. Gawain just lies there helplessly as Bertilak's sea-weed hair trails over him and he's introduced to new pleasures. The wet pressure of a tongue in the crook of his arm and behind his knees. The tickle of a kiss in the hollow above his ankle bone. The tease of sucked fingertips and nipples. The hot sting of teeth on his inner thighs.

Everywhere except where Gawain needs it most, but there's no honour in begging.

"Please," Gawain says, raising his hips. "Please."

"Is this what you want?" Bertilak spreads Gawain's thighs even wider, licks his own finger, and runs it down Gawain's shaft, making his whole body jerk.

Green teasing bastard prick. "More."

"Has anyone ever touched you here?" Bertilak's wet finger slides lower, turns lightning circles.

There are stairs above his head. Embroidered ones. Or not. "God. Bertilak. No."

"Here?" His hand closes into a fist around Gawain's cock.

"Just you, except once. There was this servant in Rome. He kissed me in the garden. And more. With his hand. My foster-father caught us. Beat me black and blue, him worse." When Bertilak growls, actually growls at this, Gawain touches his shoulder. "Don't worry: he died screaming of the plague."

"Good," Bertilak says. "Or I'd kill him myself. I'd make the plague look like the fair at Troyes."

"You mean you'd bring in jugglers and acrobats? A dancing bear or two? Maybe a talking chicken? I'm sure they had one last year, clucking `Vive le roi.'"

The growling dies. "A joke from Gawain the Serious? That deserves a very special reward."

The last syllable vibrates against Gawain's cock. He's a window, a stained glass window in a church, so damn fragile if that's what a tongue can do, a hot tongue snaking over him. The muscles in his thighs are stretched too tight; he can see them through his skin, hard cords that Bertilak soothes with the tips of his fingers.

Then those fingertips drift down again, and it's a miracle that someone so big, with hands like the roots of a giant tree, can be so precise. Smooth, unbelievably smooth and wet, like the mouth sucking him, and it must be more magic. Or maybe sap really does run through Bertilak, leaking through his pores--

Gawain swears, throwing back his head, because Bertilak's strumming something inside him while still sucking hard, and fuckfuckfuck. Waves in his stomach, echoed in his hands and cock, and, "I don't...That's...I'm going to..."

"No," Bertilak says, rising to his knees. His shoulders are wide as the doorway. "I'm going to." He grasps Gawain's trembling thighs, bending them to his chest, then, nothing.

Nothing.

It's Gawain's turn to growl. "If you're going to stop, kill me now, because I swear I'll kill you if I have to cut off your head a hundred times."

Bertilak is still grinning when he cleaves, just this fluid roll of his hips, and Gawain opens and accepts. Not without pain, a bright welcome throb as they connect. He must make a sound, surprise wrapped in pleasure and fear, because Bertilak's hand lands bird-like on his shoulder, open-fingered, caressing, even as he glides steadily deeper.

No more pain, and it's a dream now. It has to be. Reality has knife-sharp edges while dreams have none, like this, what's happening here, this thing that draws into itself the room, the woods, the court, the world. That draws itself into him, all of it inside him, filling him, straining him to capacity and past it. Bertilak's at the centre--he is the centre, the beginning and end, Creation and Judgement, with his buried cock and his burying kisses, his hand with its feral rhythm.

"Is this a test?" Gawain asks in a dazed voice, far inside his green world.

"It's life," Bertilak says, without breaking his stride.

Falling. He's falling, while Bertilak's name flies to the star-covered ceiling, then Gawain arches, bridging the space between them with a crack of his spine. Bertilak's whispering, "Yes, yes," in his ear, thrusting and stroking, and time stops, just like that.

Gasping so deeply he could swallow the moon, Gawain comes so hard that he thinks he's losing his soul. And doesn't care. Bertilak will catch it, will keep it, will give him his own in return. Is giving it, hot, essential matter far inside Gawain's body, continuing for an eternity.

It ends and doesn't end, still a few feet from Paradise, if God had green skin and a sense of humour.

#

They lie fitted together, Bertilak's face in Gawain's neck while Gawain counts out kisses on Bertilak's shoulder, revelling in his weight.

Then Bertilak raises his head, his eyes shine like lanterns. "Promise me you won't regret this."

"I promised you that when I came in your hand."

"Because I don't think I could stand that," Bertilak says, as if Gawain hasn't spoken.

"No regrets. It was...Right. So right it's hard to believe that you're real. You are real, aren't you?"

"Real as spring."

"I don't know what that means."

Bertilak takes a deep breath that comes out a sigh. "It means, Gawain, that I won't be returning to court with you."

When the words finally resonate, they're a sword at Gawain's throat, cutting off his air. Then he wrenches away. "You're not serious."

"You know how you feel about Rome? That's how I feel about your world. I'd die if I stayed there."

Gawain's blinking hard, trying to make this go away, be what it's supposed to. Nothing works. "So this was...what? Just another joke to you? A test that I failed?"

"Don't be stupid," Bertilak says, reaching for him, but Gawain slaps his hand away. "I can't sustain my human form for long. These last three months took everything I had. What do you think will happen if I walk around Camelot in my true one? When they see that a sword can't kill me, they'll lock me in a dungeon somewhere. I'm strong, but even I can't fight off fifty knights."

"I can stay here with you." Gawain hates how he sounds, a boy instead of a knight, but this is so sick and wrong, how his life is emptying just when he thought it was full, and the panic spins like a wheel. "I don't have to go back."

"You can't stay, and you know it. Your fate's to help Arthur fulfill his."

"What a crock of shit."

"You know I'm right. You've said as much yourself."

"You could've fucking told me this before we went to bed. Before..."

"It wasn't real until now."

"So this is it? I get dressed, walk out of here, and that's it?"

"We have until morning. Don't waste it."

"You don't even care, do you? Why didn't you just kill me a year ago, when you had the--"

A relief to see Bertilak angry for once, the red flash in his eyes, the rough way he shoves Gawain down and pushes inside him, the raw truths he confesses against Gawain's mouth. The first time was tender--this is elemental. Gawain fucks back as hard as he gets, sometime underneath, sometimes on top, biting and clawing, anything to forget the future. He performs acts he's never dreamed of, not stopping even when he comes, even when Bertilak does.

There's no aphrodisiac like fear.

When dawn arrives, spilling pale lemon light into the room, he's doubly bruised and battered, while Bertilak's skin has turned the dark, dying green of October leaves.

"It's time for me to sleep," Bertilak finally says, so quietly that Gawain nearly misses it, and gives him a kiss that tastes of melancholy.

Gawain tries to stay awake, tries with all his will, but sleep, like death, is inevitable.

He dreams that he's alone in a forest, wolves like dogs at his side, an axe in his green hand. He's searching for something, something that's been stolen from him, but snow begins to fall, sapping his energy, and in the end all he can do is bury himself beneath a pile of leaves and sleep until spring.

When Gawain opens his eyes, Bertilak is gone.

#

Epilogue

There was a time, in the years to come, when the land seemed whole. The borders were quiet, the Sangrail found, the legend of Arthur fixed in history.

Even Gawain chose to believe it, the myth of order, because believing hurt less. And if he sometimes woke from green-lit dreams, an adventure in Arthur's name soon scattered them. He did venture once into the Wirral, looking for Bertilak's castle, but found only a pile of dead leaves, and took a wife after that, produced a line of strong sons. He was as good as he could be, which sometimes wasn't good at all, and when fear touched him, he remembered Bertilak.

But the past always haunts the present, and soon old broken rules brought chaos and death back into the world, perpetual winter, and when the Round Table broke, so did Britain. Wars and rivalries erupted, turning son against father, friend against friend.

When Gawain met Mordred on the beach at Dover, an old wound opened, and the sand turned red. Some say that Gawain's life ended there, that Arthur, weeping, laid his nephew's body in a chapel at Dover Castle, where his skull can still be seen.

Others tell a different version of Gawain's end, which isn't an end but a start, a narrative looping like the lines of a five-pointed star, an endless knot. In this second story, while Mordred and Gawain did fight, and Mordred's sword struck deep, Gawain didn't die on the Dover shore, but held himself alive as if waiting.

As he knelt by the water, seeping blood, a tall figure emerged from a cluster of trees at the beach's end where there had been no trees before. He seemed like one of them, his skin the colour of new leaves, his limbs like branches.

Gawain smiled without flinching. "I thought you'd forgotten about me."

"I was waiting for the right time."

"What time is that?"

"Spring," the green man said, and, laughing, carried Gawain into the woods.

#

Notes: While the poem provides the main background for the story, a few details about Gawain and Arthur's court are borrowed from The Mabinogion, De Ortu Waluuanii Nepotis Artur, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, and Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur.