The axe is not Excalibur. Blood beads along its edge like holly berries and green knight guffaws as he plucks his head from between the feet of a startled squire. Blood drip-dripping on green. Good tidings of great joy; Gawain has a year in which to live and make merry.
Lancelot claps him on the back. I could not have done better (as though it is great praise). Lancelot hefts up the axe and there is a brief flicker of desire in his eyes. Lancelot, the great knight, is not always so skilled at hiding his feelings. It is as well that he is drunk and bloodlust is his language, and the coveting of a sharp blade.
He thrusts the axe at Gawain. You will have many adventures. His eyes flicker towards the dais, where Arthur is thoughtful and Guinevere’s hand sits prettily on the king’s arm.
Arthur lifts up a diamond-encrusted goblet. To my nephew, bravest of knights.
Gawain’s brothers bellow their approval as he returns to their table. He leans against the axe, blood now drying to brown (it could be any old mud).
Cut my meat, roars Agravaine.
Cut his hair, more like, mutters Gaheris. It is a fine blade, Gawain. (Gaheris is no better at hiding his envy than Lancelot.)
He leaves the feast early and wonders at the fine mess in which he has found himself. His mother, oh, his mother. She has always said that he will be an exemplary knight if he would only stop and think. He was always the one tempted out onto the thinnest of ice in the wintry north. Mordred was careful on the frozen lakes and Agravaine destructive; if he could not persuade Gareth or Gaheris to test the ice, he would smash at it with an axe (and not so fine an axe as that in Gawain’s hand).
Gawain is tempted to run home but he is not such a mother’s boy as all that. She would tell him about family and about duty, as though he needs to be told. He hangs the axe over his bed. It is not Excalibur but it comes with a certain weight. Every night as he prays by his bed, his eyes flicker towards it. Not today.
Winter eases into spring and then Camelot flourishes in the summer. There is jousting and only the occasional dragon to be slain or rebellion to be quashed. Michaelmas creeps in and the days grow short and perhaps Gawain’s strength and courage wane a little in the lengthening nights.
It is no surprise that Arthur summons him for a private audience. So many forget that Arthur is not just their king; he is a knight, too, and he envies Gawain this chance to prove his worth. As though Arthur has anything left to prove. He wields a famous sword and he conquers and he inspires such devotion in all who meet him. Gawain can only hope to be worthy of fond remembrance and Arthur says that he will be revered.
There is a tavern, not far from Arthur’s castle. Gawain does not frequent it but, tonight, he will make an exception. He is a man of moderation, of chaste intentions (that must surely pave the other road to Hell) and of piety. He is a man whose death looms large.
There is a serving maid who has always been fond of Gawain. He allows her to sit on his lap. He allows her to kiss him. It is not enough. He is a knight. Pretty girls in taverns are not adventure enough for him, though they might serve his brothers well enough. His lips touch hers lightly and he thinks of the axe, glistening over his bed.
I love you, Sir Gawain.
So does my mother, he thinks, and he extricates himself.
He fancies himself as another Galahad, says Mordred, watching his brother with great interest.
Gawain pauses. If I do, it would be a holy miracle, indeed. Growing up with you lot? We Men of Orkney are no monks. He is earnest. We are good, though.
Even Agravaine has nothing to say to that (except, come here, girl. I’ll cure what ails you, if what ails you is a lack of Orkney men).
Gawain would prefer to leave early in the morning, when the sun is at its weakest but most hopeful, and when all of Camelot slumbers. Instead, there is fanfare, as there must always be when a knight departs on a great quest.
At first, he is happy to be on his own. He has time to think. He has time to adjust to the weight of the axe on his back. His horse is no conversationalist, though, and does not greatly appreciate Gawain’s singing.
He is fortunate. With questing come those brief heady friendships, with strange knights and their strange ladies. There is a knight on whose helmet stretch great antlers and another whose sole company are eight snow-white wolfhounds. There is a dragon or two with which to contend but that is the bare minimum expected of an adventuring knight.
He shares campfires with other travelers and some of them ask why he is so diligent about cleaning and sharpening his axe.
If I were you, I’d let it be blunt. Less likely to kill me, says one drunk merchant.
Less likely to kill me cleanly, says Gawain. If I am to die, let it be in one stroke. He remembers how it was in the farmlands of Lothian. The death of a hen was a terrible thing to a young boy. Oh, please, Mary, Mother of God, let me not run around like a fool when I have lost my head.
He meets a pair of nuns on the filthy track. They do not know where the Green Chapel is but they tell him that there is a shadow over his head, like a funeral shroud.
Repent, they tell him. He does not say how he repents every night and the curve of the axe-blade is a knowing smile.
It is chance or it is fate or it is God’s own hand that guides him to a castle and, in that castle, he finds the answer he seeks. The Green Chapel is not far from here, he is told. Two miles at the most. He almost sags with relief. He is invited to stay and to feast and to speak to them of Camelot and his adventures.
There is an old crone by the fireplace in the feast hall but Gawain has come to believe that a castle is not a castle without an old crone. He is pleased to see the hairy warts and lank, dank hair, just as he is pleased to see how beautiful the lady of the castle is and how noble her lord.
Her lord is playful, too. I am going hunting, he announces. I shall give you whatever I catch on condition that you give me whatever you receive in my castle.
Gawain is confused but he cannot turn down such a seeming kind offer. He wonders what one can find in a castle like this; dust motes and tapestries and giggling kitchen girls. Bertilak is welcome to all the giggling girls.
You do not act like a man who seeks Death, says Lady Bertilak, her fingers tracing the golden thread on the bedspread.
I am a man who knows that Death awaits, he replies. And God awaits and I am at His command.
If his brothers could hear him now. If they could see how Lady Bertilak’s breasts strain against the laces of her gown or how his fingers itch to touch the satins and silks. The kiss surprises him.
The kiss does not seem to surprise Bertilak, on his return, and Gawain touches his own lips with his fingertips as he turns away. The taste is cold and copper like death.
I have fought dragons and wild boars and bears and drunks and thieves, he thinks, and yet now I am undone.
He is unsure how to bestow the second of the following day’s kisses and his knuckles scrape on the stone wall as he leans into Bertilak. He thanks God that he did not accept the golden ring.
On the third day, he is swayed by fabric and fabrication. A fox does not seem a fair exchange for a green girdle and these three kisses are sweet and deep, with the eager breaths of a man who is to die.
Gawain would be forgiven for dawdling, on this his last day on earth. He would be forgiven for pausing to listen to the soft fall of snow or the steady breaths of Gringalet beneath him. His horse’s red ears twitch and Gawain sings the holiest hymn he knows.
The Green Knight awaits. Green suits you, he says.
Gawain drops his hand to touch the silk of the girdle, wrapped twice around his waist. I was inspired.
The Green Knight toys with him. Third time lucky and Gawain does not flinch. He feels the hot blood stream around both sides of his throat like a molten necklace and he watched, dazed, as a single drop of blood splashes crimson on the snow. Holly berries, he thinks, dimly.
Brave Sir Gawain, says the Green Knight. How does it feel to live?
Gawain darts for his armour, his shield, his sword; a damned tree branch would do to fend off this fiend. I had you for a nobleman, Knight! he cries.
Before his eyes, the Green Knight changes.
Bertilak touches Gawain’s lips with his fingertips. In exchange for nothing, I shall tell you the truth, for the truth is nothing to men like us.
It is everything, Gawain wants to say but he listens, his fingers, knuckles still grazed and swollen, twist around the girdle.
Brave Sir Gawain. Return, Gringalet, girdle and all, to Camelot. Tell them of the Green Knight’s beneficence and Morgan’s treachery. Tell them of your purity and your devilry.
Gawain kisses him, in the manner of knights and it makes Bertilak laugh.
Green suits you.
Gawain pauses before he leaves and then he smiles. It will suit my brothers, too.