After the siege and the assault of Hartford, when that burg was destroyed and burnt to ashes, and the traitor tried for his treason, the noble Brind'amour and his kin sailed forth to become princes and patrons of the Carolinas.
And in that kingdom of the Carolinas have been wrought more gallant deeds than in any other; but of all Carolina kings Justin was the most valiant, as I have heard tell, therefore will I set forth a wondrous adventure that fell out in his time. And if you will listen to me, but for a little while, I will tell it as it is fixed in the letter, as it has long been known in the land.
King Justin lay at Raleigh upon a Christmas-tide, with many a gallant lord and lovely lady, and all the noble brotherhood of the Storm Surge. There they held rich revels with gay talk and jest. Sometimes they would ride forth to joust and tourney and play hockey, and again back to the court to make chirps. There was a feast held for fifteen days with pond hockey in the morning, all the mirth that men could devise, song and glee, glorious to hear, in the daytime, and dancing at night. Halls and chambers were crowded with noble guests, the bravest of knights and the loveliest of ladies, and Justin himself was the comeliest king that ever held a court. For all his fair folk were in their youth, the fairest and most fortunate under heaven, and the king himself of such fame that it was hard to name so valiant a hero.
Now the New Year had but newly come in, and on that day a double portion was served on the high table to all the noble guests, and thither came the king with all his knights. And they greeted each other for the New Year, and gave rich gifts, one to the other. Then they washed and sat down to the feast in fitting rank and order, and Kelly the queen, gaily clad, sat on the high daïs. Silken was her seat, with a fair canopy over her head, of rich embroidered tapestries, and studded with costly gems; fair she was to look upon. With her shining eyes, a fairer woman might no man boast himself of having seen.
But Justin would not eat till all were served, so full of joy and gladness was he, even as his hair greyed; he liked not either to lie long, or to sit long at meat, so worked upon him his young blood and his wild brain. And another custom he had also, that came of his nobility. He would never eat upon a high day till he had been advised of some knightly deed, or some strange and marvelous tale, or till some stranger knight should seek of him leave to joust with one of the Storm Surge, that they might set their lives one against another, as fortune might favour them. Such was the king's custom when he sat in hall at each high feast with his noble knights, therefore on that New Year's Eve he abode, fair of face, on the throne, and made much mirth withal.
Thus the king sat before the high tables, and spoke of many things; and there good Sir Dougie was seated by Kelly the queen, and on her other side sat Warren, the hard man; both were the king's sister's sons and full gallant knights. And at the end of the table was Bishop Aho, and Jordan, King Staal's son, sat at the other side alone. These were worthily served on the daïs, and at the lower tables sat many valiant knights. They herald the first course with the blast of trumpets and waving of banners. Many were the delicacies, and rare the meats. So great was the plenty, they scarce find room on the board to set the dishes. Each helped himself as he liked best, and to each two were twelve dishes, with great plenty of beer and wine. Now I will say no more of the service, but that you may know there was no lack.
As the sound of the music ceased, and the first course had been fitly served, there came in at the hall door one terrible to behold, of stature greater than any on earth; from neck to loin so strong and thickly made, and with limbs so long and so great that he seemed even as a giant. And yet he was but a man, only the mightiest that might mount a steed; broad of chest and shoulders yet slender of waist and wrist, and all his features of like fashion. But the men marveled most at his color, for though he rode as a knight, he was green all over.
Clad he was all in green, with a straight coat, and a mantle above; all decked and lined with fur was the cloth and the hood that was thrown back from his locks and lay on his shoulders. Hose had he of the same green, and spurs of bright gold with silken fastenings richly worked. The lower part of his sleeves were fastened with clasps in the same wise as a king's mantle. Around his waist and his saddle were bands with fair stones set upon silken work. All the trappings of his steed were of green enamel on metal. Even the stirrups that he stood in were stained of the same, and stirrups and saddle-bow alike gleamed and shone with green stones. The knight was thus gaily dressed in green, his hair not falling past his nape; he wore no beard upon his strong jaw.
Even the steed on which he rode was of the same hue, a green horse, great and strong. The horse's mane was crisp and plaited with many a knot folded in with gold thread about the fair green; here a twist of the hair, here another of gold. The tail was twined in like manner, bound with a band of bright green set with many a precious stone and tied aloft in a cunning knot, whereon rang many bells of burnished gold. Such a steed might no other ride, nor had such ever been looked upon in that hall ere that time.
The knight bore no helm nor hauberk, neither gorget nor breast-plate, neither shaft nor buckler to smite nor to shield, but in his hands he had an axe, huge and uncomely, a cruel weapon in fashion, if one would picture it. The head was an ell-yard long, the metal all of green steel and gold, the blade burnished bright, with a broad edge, as well shaped to shear as a sharp razor. The steel was set into a strong staff, all bound round with iron, even to the end, and engraved with green in cunning work. A lace was twined about it, that looped at the head, and all down the handle it was clasped with tassels on buttons of bright green richly broidered.
The knight rode through the entrance of the hall, driving straight to the high daïs, and greeted no man. The first words he spoke were, "Where is the ruler of this court? I would gladly look upon that hero, and have speech with him." He cast his eyes on the knights, and mustered them up and down, striving to see who of them was the most renowned.
There was great gazing to behold that knight, for each man marveled what it might mean that him and his steed should have such a hue as the green grass, or even greener. All looked on him as he stood, and wondered greatly what he might be; for many marvels had they seen, but none such as this, and phantasm and faërie did the assembly deem it. Therefore the gallant knights gazed astounded, slow to answer, and sat stone still in a deep silence through that goodly hall, as if a slumber were fallen upon them.
Then King Justin beheld this adventurer before his high daïs, and knightly he greeted him, for fearful was he never. "Sir," he said, "you are welcome to this place–lord of this hall am I, and men call me Justin. Alight thee down, and tarry awhile, and what your will is, that shall we learn after our feast."
"No," quoth the stranger, his voice thick with an unknown accent, "it is not mine errand to tarry any while in this dwelling; but the praise of this thy city is lifted up on high, and thy warriors are held for the best and the most valiant of those who ride mail-clad to the fight. The wisest and the worthiest of this world are they, and well proven in hockey and all knightly sports. And here, as I have heard tell, is fairest courtesy, therefore have I come at this time. You may be sure that I come in peace, seeking no strife. For had I willed to journey in warlike guise I have at home both hauberk and helm, shield and shining spear, and other weapons to mine hand. Since I seek no war my raiment is that of peace, but if you be as bold as all men tell, you will freely grant me the boon I ask."
And Justin answered, "Sir Knight, if you crave battle here you shall not fail for lack of a foe."
And the knight answered, "I ask no fight. In faith here on the benches are but children, were I clad in armor on my steed there is no man here who might match me. Instead I ask but for a Christmas jest, for there are here many eager for sport. If anyone in this hall holds himself so hardy, so bold both of blood and brain, as to dare strike me one stroke for another, I will give him as a gift this axe to handle as he wills. I shall abide the first blow, unarmed as I sit. If any knight be so bold as to prove my words let him come swiftly to me here, and take this weapon. I quit claim to it, he may keep it as his own, and I will abide his stroke, firm on the floor. Respite of a year and a day shall he have, and then shall you give me the right to deal him another in kind. Now, what do any here dare say?"
If the knights had been astounded at the first, yet stiller were they all now, high and low, when they had heard his words. The knight on his steed straightened himself in the saddle, and cast his eyes fiercely round the hall; red they gleamed under his noble green brow. He frowned and tossed his head, waiting to see who should rise, and when none answered he cried aloud in mockery, "What, is this Justin's hall, and these the knights whose renown has run through many realms? Where are now your pride and your conquests, your wrath, and anger, and mighty words? Now are the praise and the renown of the Storm Surge overthrown by one man's speech, since all keep silence for dread before they ever have seen a blow!"
With that he laughed so loudly that the blood rushed to the king's fair face for very shame, as did all his knights. King Justin sprang to his feet, and drew near to the stranger and said, "Now by heaven foolish is your asking, and your folly shall find its fitting answer. I am not aghast at your words. Give me your axe and I shall grant you the boon you have asked." The knight, fierce of aspect, lighted down from his charger.
Then Justin took the axe, gripped the haft, and swung it round, readying his strike. And the knight stood before him, taller by the head than any in the hall; he stood, and stroked his chin, and checked his nails, no more dismayed for the king's threats than if one had brought him a drink of wine.
Then Dougie, who sat by the queen, rose from the table and spoke, "I beseech you, my lord, let this venture be mine. For I think it not seemly when such challenges be made in your hall that you yourself should undertake it, while there are many bold knights who sit beside you. I am the weakest, I know, and the feeblest of wit, and it will be the less loss of my life than if you seek to grant this boon. For save that you are my uncle there is nothing in me to praise, no virtue is there in my body save your blood, and since this challenge is such folly that it is unseemly for you to take it, and I have asked it from you, let it fall to me, and if I bear myself ungallantly then let all this court blame me."
Justin commanded the knight to approach. He went quickly, knelt down before the king, and grasped the weapon. The king loosed his hold of it, and lifted up his hand, gave him his blessing, and bade him be strong both of heart and hand. "Take care, nephew," quoth Justin, "that you give him but the one blow, and if you strike him rightly I know you shall well abide the stroke he may give you after."
Dougie stepped to the stranger, axe in hand, marveling at his height, even taller than Dougie, and he, never fearing, awaited his coming. Their eyes met, blue to red. Then the Green Knight spoke to Sir Dougie, "Make we our covenant before we go further. First, I ask you, knight, what is your name? Tell me truly, that I may know you."
"In faith," quoth the good knight, "Dougie am I, who will give you this blow, let what may come of it; and at this time twelvemonth will I take another at your hand with whatsoever weapon you would, and none other."
Then the other answered again, low in voice so that none but Dougie could hear, "Sir Dougie, I am heartily glad that you shall be the one to give me this blow.” A shiver passed down Dougie's neck. Quoth the Green Knight, loud again, "Sir Dougie, I appreciate that you have readily and truly rehearsed all the covenant that I asked of the king, save that you shall swear me, by thy troth, to seek me yourself wherever you think that I may be found, and win you such reward as you will deal me today, before this court."
"Where shall I seek you?" quoth Dougie. "Where is your place? I do not know where you dwell, nor your court, nor your name. But teach me truly all that, and tell me your name, and I shall use all my wit to win my way thither, and that I swear by my sure troth."
"That is enough in the New Year, it needs no more," quoth the Green Knight to the gallant Dougie, "I shall tell you truly when I have taken the blow, and you have smitten me; then will I teach you of my house and home, and mine own name, then may you keep your covenant. And if I waste no words then you fare all the better, for you can dwell in your land, and seek no further. But take now your toll, and let us see how you strike."
"Gladly will I," quoth Dougie, handling his axe.
Then the Green Knight swiftly made himself ready. He bowed down his head, and his hair parted from his neck so that his beautiful, bare nape, glowing green, might be seen. Dougie gripped his axe and raised it on high, the left foot he set forward on the floor, and let the blow fall on the bare neck. The sharp edge of the blade sundered the bones, smote through the neck, and cleaved it in two, so that the edge of the steel bit on the ground, and the fair head fell to the earth.
The blood spurted forth, and glistened on the green raiment, but the knight neither faltered nor fell; he started forward with outstretched hand, and caught the head, and lifted it up. Then he turned to his steed, and took hold of the bride, set his foot in the stirrup, and mounted. His head he held by the hair, in his hand. Then he seated himself in his saddle as if nothing ailed him, and he were not headless. He turned his steed about, the grim corpse bleeding freely all the while.
He held up the head in his hand, and turned the face towards them that sat on the high daïs, and it lifted up the eyelids and looked upon them and spoke, "Look, Dougie, that you are ready to go as you have promised, and seek loyally till you find me, as you have sworn in this hall in the hearing of these knights. Such a stroke as you have dealt you shall deserve, and it shall be paid to you on New Year's morn. Many men know me as the knight of the Green Chapel. Come, I charge thee, and if you ask, you will not fail to find me. Come, or forever be known as a coward."
With that he turned his bridle, and galloped out at the hall door, his head in his hands, so that sparks flew from beneath his horse's hoofs. Whither he went none knew, no more than they knew whence he had come.
Though Justin the king was astonished at his heart, he let no sign of it be seen, but spoke courteous wise to Sir Dougie. "Fair nephew, hang up your axe, since it has hewn enough. Now I may well get me to meat, for I have seen a marvel I may not forget." And they hung it above the daïs, where all men might look on it for a marvel and wonder. Then they sat down together, the king and the good knight, and men served them with a double portion, as was the share of the noblest. And they spent that day in gladness, but Sir Dougie thinks much of the heavy venture to which he had set his hand.