Ho la3t a lace ly3tly þat leke vmbe hir sydez,
Knit vpon hir kyrtel vnder þe clere mantyle.
Gawayne and þe grene kny3t, lines 1830-31
The Yuletide bonfires were burning low when the ghost of Gawain the Good, who in life had been the first knight of King Arthur's Round Table, finally came home again.
Gareth was keeping watch on the seventh hill from the keep, numb with the cold and still heartsick at the loss of his eldest brother. In faraway Camelot, Christmas may have been celebrated with feasting, tourneys and merriment, but on the Orkney Isles, Yule was a nearly endless night. The bare six hours of gray sunlight weren't even enough to drive the stars from daytime sky. Worse yet, dark things were known to walk abroad in the night, draugr from the sea, trow from beneath the barrow mounds. After the setting of the weak sun, no household on the islands would open to a knock at the door, and those blessed with sons of fighting age sent them out to the hills to tend peat bonfires, smudges of light set burning against the darkness at the year's end.
This Yuletide, the encroachments of the other world held no terrors for Gareth. His own grief was darker than the long night itself, and he had neglected his fire until it was little more then dusky embers. Thinking at length he would try to pray, he raised his eyes towards heaven. But to his astonishment and horror, there on the crest of the next hillside distant was the unmistakable shape of the brother whom Gareth still mourned, his form silhouetted against all the dazzling stars of heaven.
For a moment he could only stare, speechless. He was hardly able to draw breath. The apparition wore no helm, but he was astride Gringolet. The heads of both knight and steed were deeply bowed, as though exhausted by the journey from the underworld.
Gareth's limbs finally unfroze enough for him to stagger to his feet. He opened his mouth, intending to call to his brother, or maybe to the Virgin herself for protection, but before he could make up his mind to speak, one of the deerhounds began to bark. Gareth was so startled he stepped squarely into the middle of his dying fire. He cursed and stumbled back, and by the time he looked up again, the apparition of Gawain was gone. The deerhounds were baying together by now, and Gareth could hear the loud, angry voices of Agravaine and Gaheris across the barren hills. Mordred reached him first, though, grabbing his arm and dragging him around. "What is it?" he demanded furiously. "What's happening?"
Gareth shook his head. "I don't --" he started to say, then "It's not--" He tried a third time. "I thought I saw someone on the hillside yonder, but I must have been mistaken."
"A mistake?" Mordred screamed at him. "Those dogs aren't barking at any damned mistake. By Christ, what did you see?"
"It was Gawain," Gareth answered at last. "I thought it was our brother Gawain. He was riding on Gringolet, just as he did in life."
Mordred shook him violently. "You saw Gawain? Gawain is dead!"
Gareth asked faintly, "And do you think that would stop him from coming home again?" He felt very calm after saying the words out loud, especially in the face of Mordred's angry terror.
"God damn you!" Mordred released Gareth and plunged into the surrounding heather, snapping off branches and flinging them back onto the fire in a frenzy, cursing at Gareth the entire time. "You miserable, cowardly whelp --" (though Gareth was the elder by ten months) "I promise you I'll beat you bloody if this is your idea of a jest."
The wet heather caught unevenly, throwing spits of flame up into the night. Someone had released the dogs by now, and their barks were growing louder. Three of the great deerhounds burst into the uneven circle of light from the fire, heads stretched forward, legs pumping hard. Two of them cleared the fire itself effortlessly, while the third ran alongside. With another bound, all three plunged forward into the darkness again. Mordred's furious fire-building began to take hold, spreading light but casting the night beyond into impenetrable darkness. Agravaine and Gaheris arrived at Gareth's side as though they had stepped through a black curtain -- Gareth heard the sound of their footfalls and the heavy panting of their breaths, and then his brothers were standing beside him, hands on their swords.
"Is it the trow?" Gaheris was breathing so hard from pelting across the hills he could hardly speak. "Mother says they're more restless during the final nights of Yuletide." The brothers had all grown to manhood on these islands, taught to be wary of the shadows that sometimes crept from beneath the ancient barrows at sunset. Gareth wondered for a moment if the trow could assume the form of his dead brother, and the idea was so heartbreakingly bleak, he couldn't answer Gaheris.
Mordred had no such trouble. He had snatched up one of the burning branches, and was waving it furiously above his head. "It's trow or demon! Gareth says a creature from hell is walking the hills tonight, and he wears the face of Gawain!"
"Gareth said that?" Agravaine, who was rightly called in Arthur's court, Sir Agravaine of the Heavy Hand, turned on Gareth. "You pewling little milksop. You would dishonor your own brother?"
"I would die before I dishonored Gawain's memory," Gareth replied, and it was the truth. "But ghost or revenant -- and by the mercy of the Lady of Heaven, it's nothing worse -- I saw the figures of Gawain and Gringolet on the next hill yonder, as clear as I see you now."
By the light of the fire, Agravaine's face turned black with fury, and Gareth braced himself for a blow, but Gaheris cried out suddenly, "The hounds! Do you hear? The hounds are returning!"
No longer baying, the hounds were yipping and barking in excitement, and their voices were getting louder. Gareth turned, and there in the outermost circle of firelight stood Gawain's shade itself.
The rest of his brothers saw him in the same instant, and even Agravaine was speechless. The form of Gawain took a step closer. He had dismounted, and was leading Gringolet by the reins. Another step, slow and exhausted, like a beast of prey hunted past the furthest extreme of exhaustion. The firelight caught stray gleams of steel from the pieces of armor Gawain still wore, but his entire left side, from byrny to cuisse to greave, was streaked black with blood from the wound that had killed him.
The terrible vision shuffled forward another scant step, its head low, clumsy in utter defeat. Gareth was filled with such woe at the sight of Gawain like this -- Gawain, who had always been so much stronger than the mere vicissitudes of this fallen world -- that he would have done anything to give that sad spirit ease.
He was not alone. Agravaine was the first to approach the specter. "By the crown of heaven!" he swore. "I don't care whether you're an angel or a devil from hell, while you wear the face of my own beloved brother, I would render aid to thee. By the love I once bore Gawain the Good, speak! Speak and tell me how I may ease thy terrible burden."
"Are you out of your mind?" Mordred was dancing back a step for every step the tragic vision advanced. "The only thing this trow could ever want is to drag you back under the barrows and pick its teeth with your shin bones!"
"Fie, Mordred," came a level voice from behind. Their mother Morgause had made her way to Gareth's fire as well, and she stood behind them with an oil lantern held high. "And fie on the rest of you addle-pated fools as well. How did I ever raise such a helpless brood of frightened chicks?" She stepped through them to stand before the specter of Gawain, and her voice became very gentle as she addressed it. "How now, Gawain my son, my beautiful boy?"
The vision raised its bare head, and almost seemed to smile. "Ill-met by lantern light, I'm afraid," he answered in a rasping whisper.
"The hounds!" Gaheris broke in, his voice awed. "Look at the hounds!"
Gareth had been aware of the dogs all along. They had accompanied Gawain back to the fire, and the long-legged, arched-back creatures were around him even now. But at Gaheris' exclamation, Gareth realized for the first time that the dogs were gamboling around Gawain, pressing their long noses into his mailed hands and whining for attention from their old master.
Gareth said, "Gawain," and believed for the first time that he was actually addressing his brother. Even as he spoke, Gawain's knees bent, and he crumpled forward stiffly, torso held rigid by his armor. Gareth and Agravaine caught him together, and eased him down with as much care as they could, turning him so he could lie face upward. Gawain was no shade. He was heavy in mail and armor, and Gareth could smell the taint of a festering wound. Morgause held the lantern above him. The injury on Gawain's neck was covered by a knotted sash, too soaked with blood for Gareth to make out any detail, but when he touched it, stiff as it was with dried blood, Gareth could feel beaded fretwork.
Gawain cried out, though, and grabbed Gareth's hand before pushing it away. "Mother needs to see the wound," Gareth explained, but Gawain shook his head weakly and said, "Leave me be. My injury is beyond help."
"Did the Green Knight buffet you around the head before slicing your neck open?" Agravaine kept his voice level, though his words were furious. "As long as you're still breathing, no injury is beyond Mother's skill." He, too, reached for the sash, but Gawain knocked Agravaine's hand back as well.
"See to Gringolet," Gawain whispered hoarsely, keeping his mailed fist wrapped in the ends of the sash. "He carried me home, and has seen no proper care since we left the Green Chapel."
"Gawain --" Agravaine began angrily, but he fell silent when Morgause snapped, "Enough." Under her direction, the four brothers lifted Gawain back into the saddle, Gawain protesting weakly all the while. Then they led Gringolet slowly across the hills to the castle keep. Gaheris held the reins, while Agravaine and Gareth walked on either side to ensure Gawain didn't tumble from the saddle. Mordred walked with Morgause, carrying her lantern for her and asking over and over again how Gawain had survived. By the terms of their fatal game a year ago, Gawain was to have knelt before the Green Knight, baring his neck without resistance to a stroke of his axe. It was inconceivable that the monstrous giant of a knight could have missed. Gawain had been given up for lost almost as soon as he had ridden away last autumn to find the Green Chapel. They had even received word from faraway Camelot that the Round Table had observed Sir Gawain's wake on Christmas Eve.
Had Gawain cheated somehow? The idea seemed to delight Mordred even more than his survival. Had he pulled his hauberk up around his ears, or perhaps hidden a knife about his person, so when the Green Knight raised both arms for the killing stroke, Gawain twisted around and struck first? Agravaine finally ordered Mordred to shut up before he took Mordred's head off himself, and after complaining to Morgause (who ignored him) Mordred subsided into sulky silence.
The morning stars were rising in the sky by the time they reached the keep. It would be five hours longer before the pale sun arose. Gawain was barely conscious by the time they lifted him down from Gringolet's broad back, though Gareth saw his fingers were still tangled in the fringe of the sash. He hated to be parted from Gawain, but mindful of Gawain's charge to him concerning his steed, he led the horse to the yard, and remained with the stablehand as he removed Gringolet's heavy tack, still glittering with gold ornament, though the fine embroidery on the crupper and skirts was much torn and stained.
Nick Toab was a good man, who had known Gawain from boyhood, and when he asked Gareth eagerly if Gawain had returned along with his horse, Gareth nodded, but had to tell him that in truth, he did not know if Gawain would survive many days more.
Gringolet was thinner than the last time Gareth had seen him, and he'd lost a shoe, but obviously Gawain had shown him as much care as he could on the way home, regardless of the vicissitudes of the journey. "Go to your brother," Nick told him then. "For his steed needs no more care than I can give him now, and Gawain needs you more." Gareth knew well that there was nothing he could do for Gawain, not if he were truly beyond even Morgause's help, but he only thanked Nick for his good service, and hurried to the keep.
In the great hall was a fireplace twice a man's height, with room enough within for a company of a dozen or more. These days, it was seldom that more than a half flat of peat or less would be burning within, but tonight, the fire had been fed to a full blaze. The servants, who would not stir a foot out of doors during the long Yule nights, were busy assembling whatever Morgause called for. A pallet had been prepared on the hearth, and by the time Gareth arrived, his other brothers had finished stripping Gawain of his mail and armor. Gareth didn't realize Gawain was even awake, he lay so listlessly in Agravaine's arms, but when Morgause reached for the bloody sash around his neck, Gawain opened his eyes, and spoke too quietly for Gareth to hear. Morgause bent down and touched her lips to Gawain's forehead, and Gawain seemed to protest no longer.
Morgause called for a basin of water and bade Gawain to sit forward, then poured water over the back of his neck. Blood-tinged water ran across the hearth in rivulets. Gawain shuddered, but otherwise held himself still. When the blood-stiffened sash had softened, Morgause unwrapped it with sure hands. Gareth edged closer and did not think the wound he saw was beyond his mother's skill. Once a clean slice, and not terribly deep, though it was now festering and unclean.
What Gareth didn't understand was why Gawain had allowed his injury to worsen so. As Morgause's eldest son, he carried her precious birthright. From sunrise until midday, Gawain's strength waxed greater and greater, before waning as the sun sank towards the west. Any injury exposed to the morning sun would heal cleanly, or so Gareth had always believed. Now, as he saw Gawain clutch for the wet, bloody sash before Morgause could cast it away, Gareth's heart grew cold with a miserable suspicion. Morgause herself looked at Gawain sharply, but allowed him to hold onto the sash. The few shreds not covered in Gawain's blood were of green silk, fretted with gold thread and gemstones.
Morgause and Agravaine stripped off Gawain's padded doublet, leaving him to shiver naked for a moment until they lifted a linen singlet over his head to cover him. Agravaine murmured something to Gawain and must not have liked Gawain's soft reply, because he yelled back, "God's wounds, Gawain! What kind of an idiot --"
"Hush," Morgause told Agravaine mildly, and while Agravaine continued to hold Gawain sitting upright, Morgause fed him careful sips of broth from a cup. When he refused more, she and Agravaine laid Gawain back on the pallet and heaped furs over him. Morgause gave instructions to a servant to bring sundries up from the root cellars and kitchens, then, and Agravaine, Gaheris and Mordred settled around Gawain's pallet to keep watch and talk. Gareth hung back a little, still miserable with his suspicion that Gawain had deliberately covered his wound to keep it from healing.
Gawain looked to be sleeping uneasily, but when he awoke less than an hour or so later, he seemed a little stronger. At any rate, he was in a humor to talk about his quest for the Green Chapel. Morgause was stirring a sharp-smelling unguent over the fire, and Gawain told how he had spent Christmas in a fine castle that stood far beyond the realm of Logres. There he had played a complicated game at the court, wherein he would lay with the lady of the castle in the morning, on the promise that he would lay with the castle's lord in the evening. Gawain's voice was very soft, and Gareth was not sitting close to him, so he thought he must have misunderstood Gawain's story, but Agravaine laughed out loud, and congratulated Gawain for finding hospitality with such fine folk, and wanted to know who had been more comely, the lord or the lady? But if Gawain answered that, Gareth did not hear. No one asked Gawain about the green sash he still gripped, balled up in his fist.
After a time, Gareth slept, and he dreamed a terrible dream about Gawain riding across the hills. He was carrying his own head under his arm, crowned with a circlet of holly, and when he rode up close to Gareth, the severed head opened his eyes. Gawain's grey eyes had turned as green as the holly itself. Gareth awoke feeling frightened and angry, but most of all, out of patience. Agravaine was sleeping next to Gawaine's pallet, and Morgause was still tending her potion over the fire, but Gaheris and Mordred had gone, presumably back to their chambers. A servant arose when he saw Gareth was awake, but Gareth motioned him away and went to kneel beside Gawain's pallet.
Gawain had pushed aside the furs, over-warmed by the fire, Gareth supposed. The flesh of his throat was whiter than the linen of his singlet, save for the angry red trails leading from the festering lips of the unhealed wound. His eyes were open, and they flickered over to Gareth as he knelt.
Gawain smiled faintly at him. "Good brother Gareth," he murmured. "Is Gringolet well?"
"He's fine. Nick Toab is taking care of him, and he's more worried about you than he is your stallion."
Gawain shook his head. "I'm not worth poor Nick's care."
Gawain was still holding that stupid green sash, and Gareth had had enough. He ripped it from Gawain's hand. Gawain didn't try to grab it back, just closed his eyes. "Gareth," he said, his voice resigned.
"I know why the Green Knight didn't bother to chop off your head!" Gareth yelled. "He only had to give you a scratch, because he knew you would just crawl off to die like a wounded hart anyway. No need to dull his big, shiny blade on your neckbone at all, was there?"
"Shut up, Gareth." Agravaine's big hand closed on the back of Gareth's shirt and lifted him to his feet. "Your brother already knows he's been a fool. He doesn't need more lashes from a pup like you."
"Let him go," Gawain said. He had a faint, sad smile on his face, though his lips were nearly as white as his brow. "He doesn't understand."
"No, I don't understand," Gareth agreed, not mollified in the least. "This sash nearly killed you! Why did you keep it tied around your neck like that? Why did you want to die?"
"Trying to avoid death was my pride and my weakness," Gawain answered. He reached up then and grasped Gareth's wrist so fiercely that Gareth dropped the sash in surprise. Gawain didn't reach for it, though, continuing to hold Gareth hard.
"The game they played at that far Logres castle was a pretty enough Christmas jest, but it was a cruel one, too. Whatever I exchanged with the Lady at dawn, be it a kiss, my cock and balls --" and here Gawain grabbed himself through his singlet with his free hand in a sudden, angry gesture, "-- or any other trinket, I was honor-bound to share the same with my Lord when the moon rose. I was easy enough trading my favors, but when my lady gave me that bit of fringed green silk and told me it would surely protect me from the Green Knight's heavy axe, I hoarded it for my own, because I did not want to die."
"But Gawain--" Gareth protested.
"And the Green Knight knew of my clumsy subterfuge. When I appeared at the Green Chapel to receive his blow, you see now the scratch he gave me for my lack of honor. Then he laughed at me and called me a pretty good knight all the same, and told me to go home." Gawain released Gareth's hand at last. "I tied up my wound with the fine sash responsible for it, and then I was too ashamed to allow it to heal, as though dying on the road home would somehow salvage my tattered pride." Gawain took Gareth's hand again, but gently this time. "I'm sorry, dear brother. That was my pride as well, and you deserved far better from me."
Gareth held his head very straight, looking forward, because if he glanced down, the tears gathering in his eyes would surely spill down his cheeks. It did him no good, though, because Gawain pulled Gareth down to kiss his face thrice, and there was no hiding his tears then.
Agravaine clapped Gareth on the shoulder. "Idiots," he said fondly. "I'm surrounded by idiots. Gareth, go see if they have something more hearty than broth for breakfast. Gawain has a long morning ahead of him, and I'll wager the frost on the hills won't make nearly so comfortable a bed as the one he found in the Lady's chambers. Or the Lord's either, for that matter."
"In faith, they both came to my room," Gawain protested weakly, but Gareth had already taken off for the kitchen. And when the late dawn finally crept across the firth on the other side of the hills, Morgause painted runes upon Gawain's throat and brow to supplement the brief hours of light before noon, and she and all of Gawain's brothers helped him walk out of the keep to meet the thin rays of the pale morning sun.