The wind slips through the branches of the trees, unseen but not silent, and the chapel is a place of peace. His mother’s well-meaning protections cast aside, Gawain lowers his head in supplication and feels cold steel against his skin for the last time. Dirt under his hands, river water lapping against the shore in the distance, and the whole of the world holds him in its hands as he breathes steadily outward.
It is far less of a strange thing than he would have thought, to be dead.
For a year he pushed the thoughts out of his mind with drink and sex and good company, but still they came. At night he would fall victim, thrashing against sweat-soaked sheets and falling to the floor. Mind brimming not with images of long-suffering torture or unadulterated agony, but instead with the idea that this was all there was.
That all that awaited him was darkness, a life unlived. The terror of death was, to his mind, a great empty chasm that held nothing thereafter. A world of ash, the taste of dust on his tongue, and no one to look him in the eyes.
He would wake from these scenes and scramble to his knees. Lay himself over the bed, bow his head over clasped hands, and pray. Desperately, he would convince himself that it was divine intervention that made the prayer worthwhile to him, but in truth it was only the repetition of familiar words, the phantom hand of his mother on his back as he spoke and drove the visions out.
Rot, he began to think, was what was in his mind, and he feared more than anything that when his head was cleaved from his shoulders his insides would be revealed as hollow and diseased for all to see. A man empty of ambition and drive, with no true want to be all of the things that were asked of him.
Words meant for church would slip clumsily over his tongue and his eyes would wet and he would wonder what was wrong with him—and perhaps now he knows.
The head of the axe shines, undaunted, in the sun, and he is cheered in some queer way.
His insides are not hollow at all.
In the distance, a castle.
Familiar in stature and size, Gawain reaches its walls with far less turmoil this time round. The sun is still out, though setting in the distance, and he is greeted by the barks of that large deerhound. The dog nuzzles his face into Gawain’s hand when it is offered, and he thinks to himself that it is a wonder. He is still able to be touched.
Are you real or a spirit? he remembers himself asking, with some shame. He understands now that she was right.
There is no difference.
It is the face of the Lord in front of him, once again welcoming him here. When turned at a certain angle, Gawain can see that he is all things of this land. The Knight, the Lady, all the way back to the scavenging boy. Every touch on Gawain’s face in recent days has come from this man in some way. He is sure of it.
“My Lord.” Gawain cannot stop himself from bowing his head, well past such courtesy as he might be. “I was not sure if I would find you here, for you said I would not if I came back.”
The Lord’s smile is warm, welcoming, and his hand claps against Gawain’s shoulder and then holds there, tight. “So I did. But you have not come back. You have moved forward. Can you see the difference now?”
They dine on what must surely be the Lord’s most recent hunt, venison and rabbit and wine from the deepest stores. Gawain drinks and drinks until he can drink no more, until he is no longer giving thought to the fact that it is only the two of them now. That it may as well have always been.
He is offered his room back, but finds he does not want it.
“I would feel more at comfort in the rooms closest to yours,” he admits, sure in his deepest of hearts that he would not have spoken the words were it not for the wine nor for this upside down world he now wanders in.
They are sitting in front of the fire, and he keeps looking towards the table to their right, unbidden. Stacks of cards sit on its surface, carefully laid out and intricately painted. He can just make out the picture on the closest one: two swords crossed, though in enmity or camaraderie he cannot tell.
“This I can do for you,” the Lord is saying, reaching out to rest his hand on Gawain’s knee. The touch is fleeting, but comforting all the same.
On sheets of silk, he sleeps through the night dreamlessly and without fear.
He dresses the next morning from a wardrobe that is not his own and yet must be. There is warm saffron and bright, champion red, but more than anything he finds the color blue, royal and winsome in its elegance. Fingers trailing over sleeves of the color, he is unable to pretend he hasn’t seem it somewhere else—on the Lord’s wife.
Wherever she might be, now.
Just as last time he was here, tables are stocked high with food and boots are cleaned to the point of shining and there is no sign of how any of it has happened. Breakfast is vegetables and eggs and clear, crisp water that tastes like it came from an untouched spring. There is conversation, too, and Gawain has never been so glad to be wrong about anything.
Though he slept well through the night, his last thought before sleep took him was that he might fall to the darkness then and never wake up.
Instead he is scraping his fork against the bottom of a plate and saying, “Would I be welcome to spend my time in the library today?”
“Today and any day,” the Lord answers. “Your book is still there, should you want it."
His book. Gawain thinks of it, lovingly bound and full of a story he was never afforded the time to read more than a few scant sentences of. He should like to read more soon.
The library is a small room, and yet daunting as any Gawain has ever seen. It was his mother who taught him to read, setting him on her knee and pointing to the letters on pages, making him laugh with rhymes and riddles that made the sounds stick into his mind easier than they might have with dry lessons from a tutor.
He thinks of her doting smile, the back of her hand pressed against his forehead, as he trails his fingers across the bindings of the books in front of him. Tales of chivalry, to be sure, but he finds that is not all. There is history to be read and philosophy, as well, and there are more salacious things, too. His own book is tucked away on the highest shelf, and he asks that it wait for him. All in due time.
Hours wiled away in this cramped little room, and Gawain finds he does not mind it. With no expectations bearing down upon him, he feels free to take his time underlining sentences as he reads and taking leave of one book for another the moment the urge hits him.
Halfway through one volume detailing a most-familiar woman who lost her head, he drifts into his own thoughts, distantly watching a storm roll in through the small window he’s sat by. The saint’s story strikes him as something he cannot possibly relate to, and yet does. There is something in there, some small flash of hurt that mirrors his own.
Tracing under the lines, he again reads how it was not just the refusal of the man at her door, but of all men, of the expectation of what her life would be by those around her—
With a quickness that startles even himself, Gawain shuts the volume and pushes it away.
The rain is beginning to tap against the window next to him, a soft sound that will grow louder with time.
The Lord cannot hunt due to the storm and apologizes that dinner is the same as it was the night before.
“I cannot bring myself to mind,” Gawain admits, “for it all tastes just as good, and I am happy to share it with you.”
“Then let us eat and drink and rejoice in the most fortuitous of outcomes,” the Lord says, raising his cup. Gawain raises his as well, and thinks of the court he used to call home, a room full of people who he did not want to lead and who did not want to be led by him. It may be an uncharitable reading, for sure, but he believes now that even those who would have wished him king would have come to regret it.
“That we are together,” Gawain says, because he can see nothing more worthy of celebration here in front of him or, indeed, behind him as well.
The Lord’s eyebrows raise and his smile, which has always leaned towards coy before now, turns genuine in nature. Warmth spreads through Gawain’s chest as they knock their cups together and partake of wine with little care of how it stains their lips and tongues red.
There is the fire again, blazing in the hearth, and Gawain does wonder at who cleans the chimneys here, who polishes the glass windows and the wooden floors, who brings the wine up from the cellar. For certainly, he thinks, glancing to the man sat next to him, it cannot be the Lord who does it. Though he is a many-headed thing in all truth, and so perhaps he does. Perhaps even now he makes Gawain’s bed for the night and stocks his wardrobe full.
“The clothing,” Gawain says, leaning forward so that the flames might heat his face.
“Hm?” The Lord’s voice is only a step removed from the storm that bears down on them overhead, that great rolling thunder filling Gawain’s ears in its easy way.
“In the wardrobe.” Gawain is wearing some of it, even now. It might be shameful that he purposefully picked that winsome blue. He refuses to dwell on it. “Did you—“ He swallows, throat dry and eyelids heavy. “Was it happenstance? A selection for any traveller who might come by?”
The Lord taps the rings on his fingers against the wooden arm of his well-carved chair. “Surely, my Knight, you must know by now,” he says in that voice of his, “that you are the only traveller for whom the doors of this castle will open.”
It is the sweetest thing, sweeter than the taste of wine and honey, still heavy on his tongue. Were the words a pour of wine, he’d drink deeper still.
A simple thing, then, to push upwards from his chair and fall to his knees in front of the Lord. He cannot help it, and he is half-terrified at how easily the motion comes. His cheek against the Lord’s knee, his neck bared once more.
“Is this how it is always to be, between us?” he asks, feeling the Lord’s fingers against the crown of his head.
“So long as you would like.” He can feel the Lord’s voice now, as if it is his own. “I will not lie to you.”
“Only trick me,” Gawain murmurs, with no hatred in his heart. He thinks he was made to be tricked by those who love him, cut from a cloth that would make the experience feel at home to him. He has spent his life walking through tricks like spiderwebs, the strands stuck in his hair as he remains otherwise unchanged by their gossamer touch.
“Only trick you,” the Lord agrees. His pushes his fingers through Gawain’s hair and Gawain allows his eyes to fall closed. “The truth is that you will always be welcome to leave me, to go wherever it is you desire. I only ask one thing of you.”
Gawain raises his head and feels the Lord’s fingers slip around his skull and then under his jaw, lifting his chin so that he might gaze upwards.
“Come back to me,” the Lord says.
Gawain, as much as he is able, agrees.
Against his skin, the Lord’s hand is fire-warm.
A fortnight passes.
Gawain spends his days in the library more often than not, piecing through books at his own pace. His own book still sits, untouched, waiting for him as he toils away over both texts he has never seen and stories he has read thrice over.
By the second week, he begins to venture out, joining the Lord on two separate hunts, the first plentiful and the second frustratingly barren, though there is little in the way of consequence. They come back from the second hunt to find their dinner plates stacked high with meat and vegetables and their cups full of wine.
He admits to missing Gringolet that night, and is unsurprised by the Lord’s offer to have him in the stables come morning.
“No, my Lord, for it would not truly be him, would it?” Gawain says.
The Lord’s smile is melancholic. “It would not.”
So he claims a new horse, spotted and weak-legged and named Keincaled. The Lord offers him mounts that are healthier and stronger, still, but Gawain turns them all down. There will never be a horse as handsome as his was—it’s a fool’s errand to try. Instead, he brushes the mane of Keincaled and whispers to him that there will be no battles this time round.
Only sun-dappled terrain and grass to eat, fallen boar and deer in the distance, the calm twang of the bowstring as it snaps back and the arrows are let fly towards their target.
Another storm heads their way at the end of the two weeks and Gawain is outside when it begins to rain. He sets the horses at ease with a calm tone and steady hand and then makes back for the castle, book of knight’s tales under his arm and saffron cloak pulled over his hair as he does.
There is dirt under his nails and he thinks to wash it away at the water basin tucked into the corner when he enters from the side of the castle that leads to the stable. Only there isn’t a water basin there any longer.
Instead, there is a door, painted black and with scratches on its surface.
Gawain is gripped as if in some trance, his heart beating fast in his ears, as he looks upon it.
Surely there was not a door here before.
He turns his head swiftly to see the Lord standing not far away upon the stairs that lead up and up and up. Back to where the door was—and it is the water basin, blank wall behind it. Nothing at all amiss.
“Dinner is set out,” the Lord says, behind him.
Gawain’s voice is hoarse as he replies, “Yes, yes, of course.”
Dinner is as filling as ever, though the taste of it is dulled by Gawain’s wandering mind as they sit at the table. He is sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he saw a door there and, what’s more, that he heard a whisper. The words were not to be understood, he is sure of that, but he cannot shake the sound of the voice even now.
“You are distant,” the Lord says. His voice is not accusatory, more curious than anything.
The Lord holds up a hand, reminding Gawain for a fraction of a second of the regality of his uncle.
“I would that you speak carefully,” the Lord advises him. “You are welcome to your secrets here. What books you read, how you spend your time, and what you see here—these things are all your own. I only ask after them out of concern and my own interest. It will not wound me if you stay silent.”
“Which is why I will not,” Gawain responds. He holds in his hand a cup of wine and they both know he has been chasing the sweetness of being on his knees since it happened. In the wake of that night, the drink is dry and bitter always. “There was a door.”
“There are many doors here,” the Lord agrees.
“It was not of this place.” Gawain is sure of that. “It was painted black and when I looked away and then back it was gone. Do doors often do such things here?”
“I cannot say that they do.” The Lord looks, for the first time, perturbed, but not confused. “Have you read your book yet?”
“No,” Gawain admits. “It has not felt the right time.”
“It may be that time now,” the Lord suggests.
Spread between them is a bounty, pheasant and garden greens, and Gawain wants to push it all away. He wants to act in a way he knows he should not here. This is not the brothel, men and women in throes and mess all about. He cannot say he ever even liked the brothel, only that he liked to be drunk and away from the court, with someone who liked his company.
“Tomorrow,” Gawain says, finally. “Tonight I would rest.”
“Yes,” the Lord agrees. “A smart choice.”
Before he goes to his rooms, Gawain gathers the courage to stop the Lord in the hall. Under lit torches and amongst tapestries of great hunts and ruinous battles, he offers his hand, palm facing upwards. There is but a moment’s hesitation before the Lord slides his fingers against Gawain’s palm and Gawain is staggered by the blade-sharp feeling that he has done this before.
But of course he has.
He leans down and presses his lips to the skin of the Lord’s knuckles, eyes closed as he does so. His own movements are achingly slow for wanting, for being unable to allow this to end. The Lord’s skin, in turn, is soft, but not untouched. It tastes better than the most ancient and costly of wines.
The Lord says nothing as he pulls away, and Gawain thinks it queer how they have done far more than this before, and yet this feels so monumental. It is the two of them here, now, no tricks between them. Gawain swallows heavily. It would be such a lie to say, in this moment, that this is not what he wants.
A man, in all ways.
“My Lord,” he says, closing his eyes and bowing his head. “My thanks, always, for what you provide for me here.”
“My Knight.” That voice, Gawain can no longer pretend it does not roil into his gut with a fierceness. “I provide you nothing that is not yours to take.”
There is a touch upon Gawain’s face, a hand against his skin. He leans into it, and then the Lord is gone.
The next morning, Gawain dines alone.
When he reached into his wardrobe, he pulled out the saffron cloak he last wore to his appointment in the chapel. He had looked at it, long and hard, and then worn it as he did then, knowing there was a long road ahead of him.
In the library, he reaches for the highest shelf, and pulls his book free.
It is oddly shaped, different from all the other books he has touched before it. Its pages are worn, and yet not damaged. He believes fully that it was made for him, though also does not question as he begins to read that he is far from the first to turn its pages.
The book itself is not long, and he is done reading by midday, the sun high in the sky as he sits with his own thoughts for a moment.
“I would like to stay here,” he says out loud, trying to words on. They sound true in his ears, and taste honest in his mouth. “I would like…”
He thinks of all he has seen. In this castle and beyond, with his eyes and with his mind. He does not think the door leads to darkness such that he had visions of in the year before he came here. If the book in his hands is to be believed, there will be darkness around him, but it will not be of the kind he feared for so long.
Saying goodbye does not seem enough.
So he writes his farewell instead, and then heads to where he knows the door will be. It is not locked. The whisper becomes clearer as he turns the handle, and he does not look behind him as he goes. He already knows what he would see.
I will return, though I know not when.
If you will wait for me, I will make myself into a most handsome man, worthy to sit at your side.
There is darkness.
It is not like any darkness Gawain has ever known. He is used to the shadows brought by nature and storms crossing the sky, to the cover of nightfall and to the pitch that surrounds him when all the candles are blown out before he lies down to sleep.
This darkness is more akin to ink spilled on parchment, fanned out and engulfing everything before it. He does not know how long he spends waiting for his eyes to adjust to it, waiting for the ability to see his own hand in front of his face. He only knows it is long enough that he begins to question whether he has a hand to look at any longer.
Around that time, he begins to move.
It is like walking, and nothing more. One step after another, ever forward. He thinks that, perhaps, it would be easier to fathom if it weren’t so simple. If every step was slow and heavy, if the darkness was a physical thing pushing in on him. But it is none of those things, none of those things at all.
Still, he cannot escape the feeling that he should have reached something by now. His steps do not make a sound, and there is no light in any direction. His own book did not tell him how long he would be here, and he feels the full weight of that now.
Chest constricting, he stumbles to his knees.
I cannot breathe, he thinks, panic sweeping up under him like the pull of deep water.
He knows that this place is not the darkness that he fears, and yet he cannot shake the nausea rising within him.
If this is it, if this is all there is—
No. He refuses, steadying his breathing, to fall to this. Eyes closed or open, it does not matter and he cannot tell. He bows his head and begins to pray. He believes not in the words, but in the peace they bring him irregardless of their power. He can feel his mother’s hand against his temple, brushing his hair back as she sings a song her mother used to sing to her.
He pulls himself to his feet with her voice in his ears.
The journey forward is arduous, but no more so than any journey he has taken in the past. He supposes that is the gift of having grown in the way that he did. As strange as this place behind the door is, he does not feel as if he will succumb to any sort of madness here. If it were that simple, he would have fallen to it long ago.
For a long time, he continues on.
There comes a light.
It is a pinprick in the distance at first, so small it seems no bigger than the head of a sewing needle.
It grows. Slowly. But it grows.
The change happens gradually, but also all at once, and nearly without warning he is in a night stained forest, walking through beds of mushrooms and weaving through the trunks of long dead trees. He would think it was the forest he travelled through before, if not for the utter silence. He hears no bird nor animal nor person. There is no whispering wind or softly dripping water. He does not even hear the pathetic cry of insects.
On the horizon, though, he sees another light. This one through the glass window of a small stone hovel which grows bigger with every passing step.
Collapsing against the door when he reaches it, he pounds a fist against the wood and then waits. There is no answer. Heart thudding in his chest, he forces himself to knock again and continues to wait. It is only when his third call goes unanswered that he pushes the door open himself.
The place is deserted, and yet if he did not know any better he would guess that whoever lived here had left but a second ago.
It is one room only. A bed and a wash basin and a fireplace. A chair set against a table rich with parchment and ink. Bookcases, not nearly as many as the library in the castle, but enough. The light he saw from a distance was the fire roaring in the hearth.
Set against the back wall is a tall, gleaming axe.
Gawain falls to his knees.
He is not well suited to the work.
It is not as though he has never worked with his hands, but they are not nearly calloused. He is neither a hunter nor a woodsman and, in truth, after all and everything, he is not even much of a man. He cannot tell which plants are safe to eat, nor how to cook the ones that are. That is to say nothing of cutting wood for the fire, a task he starts and stops ten times over before giving it a true try.
Defensive in his own mind, he looks up to the sky now and again and tells himself he might be able to learn if it were not for this eternal nightfall he finds himself in.
There is no use being upset about it, as it is nothing compared to the darkness that led him here. But it is certainly not a help, the entire world stuck with the moon overhead, the sun never rising in the distance or elsewhere.
Still, he tries.
The book said he would fail at first.
The book told him everything.
He had not quite believed it, the pages beginning with his death and then continuing on as they had. He had become frantic when the prose had turned to his own feelings. Things so deeply buried his ears rang with shame to see them written so plainly. But then, how could it not be right? Witchcraft, he supposed, but was not witchcraft the truth much of the time?
So he will fail at first, according to the pages within. He will enter this place and make a fool of himself no matter what he does. He would be a liar to say it stings less because he knows to expect it. In some ways, it cuts deeper. He feels known by this book and in turn by the Lord in a way he did not think anyone would ever know him.
This is not the dear love that he was taught to expect, the quiet moments and eternal bond of trust. This is someone knowing him at his ugliest and most shameful. His hidden lust and the tasks which find him wanting.
Halfway through creating his meager woodpile, sweat dripping from him like rainwater, he falters at the realization that he never once fooled the Lord when he begged off taking up bow and arrow. Always claiming he’d had too much wine the night before or that he was not used to the arrows in stock, finely crafted as they were.
He cannot remember the exact words, but he does remember that it was right there to see, the fact that he had never been one for killing animals himself unless made to do it. He had acted well that it did not, but death at his own hands has always disquieted him more than he thinks anyone else could have guessed. He brings the axe down hard and splits the wood in front of him cleanly in two, as if in answer to the thought.
There is a building anger in him. He was told he could have his secrets and, yet, what secrets are there to be kept when it is all written down? He does not know and resolves to find out, no matter the cost.
In the meantime, he keeps his own notes.
He measures time passing through how much he reads and writes and does otherwise. A book must be several hours, and a parchment full of words a quarter of that. Chopping wood takes its own hour, and feeding himself takes half, most of the time. At first keeping track of it all gives him a sense of control, but quickly he finds it meaningless.
Time slips away from him when he sleeps, regardless, is the crux of the problem. He never knows how long he’s been unconscious, has no system by which to count it. His closest guess comes to how much the fire has died down in the hearth, but even that is faulty. He has never before realized that time is a construct, measured by the light of day and the words of others and not much else besides.
For some semblance of normalcy, he marks the days off by when he goes to sleep. There is nothing else to be done.
And so it is the seventh day when he hears the whispers.
He wakes with a start, the feeling of falling like a strike of lightning to his body. The fire is embers and ash in the hearth and there is a voice in his ear.
“He rose,” the voice says, “and he did not rest.”
Sitting up in bed, Gawain is bedraggled and blinking away sleep. He is wholly unsure of what meaning he is supposed to take from the words, and more than anything annoyed. The clear voice has crept back into the woodwork. It is simply that rather than the call of birds or the ringing of bells in the distance, it is a woven tapestry of indecipherable murmuring in the back of his own mind.
He does not venture far from the hovel for fear of being unable to find it again, but he goes farther today than he has before, ducking under branches and foraging through the ever-growing mushrooms in search of solace.
No matter where he goes, though, the voices stay. He cannot make out what they say most often, and feels as though he is at court again. Sitting in the middle of a thrum of constant noise and only picking up pieces here and there when someone deigns to turn their head towards him.
“He resolved to claim what he knew was his to take,” one of the voices hisses as he brings the swing of his axe down on the wood. Without thinking, Gawain swivels sharply, axe pointed forward as if to attack someone who has snuck up on him.
There is no one there.
Inside the hovel, he pulls his book from underneath the bedding and flips through the pages with flicks of his wrist until he finds whereabout he seems to be. He falls back into the chair with a groan, aware now of the problem. The story gets vague here, speaking in half-truths and without plain language.
He runs a finger under the lines that are most fitting and tries to tell himself there is meaning to be found here, but even when he read it the first time through he found it a largely symbolic tale. There is to be greenery and peace and darkness. Death and growth alike. There are some early verses that write of unshed tears and fleeting touches, and those make him more nervous than anything else.
He has not reread those sections and at just the thought of them he moves to shut the book with haste, but pauses.
“There was no one there,” one of the voices advises him.
Before he can stop himself, Gawain admonishes the voice as if it is a troublesome child, bidding it to be quiet as he situates himself at the desk. He pulls parchment to himself and an inkwell, too, and then he begins to write a list.
There are things he has long felt he should be good at. Partaking in hunts, leading factions to battle, bedding a woman for marriage and siring children with her, and on and on and on. He will do none of those things so long as he has no wish to now, and has known that since he returned to the castle.
Since coming to this hovel, though, he has thought to force himself to do the things he does not want to. But what have his choices led him to but a life where he can do what he wants?
There is more than one way to be worthy and he has known that for so long, but as he puts ink to paper he is sure this is the first time he has ever really understood.
The whispers never fully subside, after that.
But like all manner of noise, Gawain finds he grows accustomed to it as time goes by.
The bookcases in the hovel are overflowing with knowledge, and he reads them all. There are patterns for sewing and botanical guides and parables to help with caring for horses. He finds he likes that last idea most of all, and already misses his strange little spotted horse at the thought. It is the first time in his life he has been able to see his care of animals as something more than a defect.
There is nobility, he thinks now, in a gentle hand on a horse’s mane. Care can be prized over cruelty in this new world.
Perhaps most importantly to this shift in perspective is his imposition of a rule: he is not to consult his book for any reason from here on out. Having read its weaving tale through once he has a working understanding of the path this will take, if not a perfect understanding of every intricacy.
He has time enough to allow himself to make his own path, rather than to follow a path set for him by another. There is a stark difference there, he decides. His book may be right about the journey he will take, but it will not any longer be the reason why he turns one way and not another.
And, like that, it seems he blinks and then is tending to a garden around back of the hovel, picking things out to eat for breakfast and making notes as to how he can improve. He perfects tomatoes first, round and ripe and red as they hang from the vines.
He marvels at the growth around him, this stunning inverse of a battlefield. Surely nothing should be growing in this forever night, and yet there is something right about it in his soul.
In the disconnected stupor that he spent most of his life, he was taught that nothing would come to him easily. That battles must be hard-fought in order to be considered won, and that nothing worth having was simple in nature. A sword was heavy in your hand as a consequence of its making, yes, but also so that you respected its power over the lives of yourself and others.
Gawain had that respect and still does now, only he has never understood why it was his lot in life to carry that weight for years upon years. He had not asked to do any such thing, only been born and anointed in halls made by men he had never met. He had been a child once and stood with his hand in his mother’s, and even then he had wondered why his life should be hard and why it seemed no one had any choice in the matter.
But here he does have choice, and he finds himself thinking it is right. That all things should come easily to those who need them and want them. Whether a garden grown by night or the touch of someone who you should not want so close, but do.
Why should it be virtuous to suffer the constraints of a life he did not choose? He has never understood and, here, he feels free to never find that understanding.
Truthfully he does not become adept at cutting firewood, but the thought of doing it no longer makes him wince. It feels part of the work here: discovering the things he does not want to do. Cleaning and stocking the hearth, he believes, will be better left to invisible hands.
Most surprisingly he finds his own hands adept in mending clothing and there are tears in his eyes at the realization that it is from watching his mother and sisters do the very same. It was a work that awed him, a practice he could not touch until now.
Fabrics dyed with the juice of berries and needles carved from bone, thread from he knows not where. All of it right in his hands.
“As he was meant to be,” is the fragmented sentence that he hears from the whispers now, and for the first time he feels he recognizes the voice, that distinctive tone. Admonishing and yet understanding, knowing him better than he knew himself. His book is set not far from his hand and he is suddenly sure he knows its author, the only person with whom his secrets have never been his own despite his best efforts.
“Mother?” he whispers to the empty room.
There is no answer.
On the pages of his own parchment, he has marked off more days than he can count. Numbers, he has always been loathe to admit, escape him like rabbits on a hunt. Wiley things. He knows it is some collection of dozens, though, and three pages over at that.
His garden has grown so tall he can see the leaves through the windows when he lies in bed, and he has become able to make garments of his own, though clumsily. He can recognize a mushroom that would harm him from one that will make a soup more flavorful with ease. And his hands are calloused now, though more from sewing needles and the press of tools than any work he might have done as a knight of the court.
Still the voices whisper, but he finds comfort in them now.
It has been long since he has heard the voice of another.
Longer still since he has dreamed.
Which is precisely how he knows that is what he is doing when he wakes to find himself in his chamber, the press of his mother’s hand on his cheek. His mind is feverish and his body sweat-slicked. For a moment he wonders if this is a memory or a vision, but then he decides it does not matter.
“Mother,” he says, sure now that she is real, no matter the specifics.
Her face is so kind and he believes, as he always has, that she would do anything for him as she says, “My son. What ails you?”
“I am not well,” he responds, though she must be able to see that.
She shakes her head and moves her hand from one cheek to another. “I do not speak of your body. I ask after your mind.”
“I fear I am not made for this life,” he answers after a moment. His voice is layered, both old and young all at once. It is a thought he had as a child and when he became an adult anew, a thought that has never truly left him, even in this strange afterlife.
Her frown is not one of upset or pity, but of understanding. It seems to say that this conversation must go one way, and that she already knows the ending despite what she might say next.
“My brother says you are adept at swordsmanship, both in the field and on horseback. That you are a leader, and intelligent besides. And I know myself you are strong, stronger even than some of the knights that have ridden at his side and sit at his table still.”
“But, Mother, I do not like it,” Gawain hears himself say. “Because I can hold a sword with some skill, does that mean I must hold it forevermore?”
She moves her hand from his cheek and to his forehead. “What would you do instead?”
“I do not know.” He is delirious with sickness, and with the half-wish that it might take him. “Only that I would like the chance to find out for myself.”
He does not hear her answer. Instead, he feels himself fade and wakes with a start.
Against his legs, the sheets are silk. Around him are stone walls adorned with torches, lit and flickering.
Gasping for breath, he is awake in the castle, eyes as wide as they were when he went to his death.
The whispers are gone, but he can recall his mother’s words to him now.
“Wait and, in time, you will find yourself there. In a place where your life is yours to decide.”
He is outside the castle walls as the sun rises.
The sky has always seemed beautiful at this time of day, but he has rarely been afforded the time to bask in it. He stands now in awe of the colors that appear as if painted by real hands. Bruise-like purples and winsome blues, sweet pinks and bright oranges all. And the sun herself is a burning thing, so bright he is nearly blinded.
In her presence, he falls to his knees, head bowed, and that is how the Lord finds him.
“It has been a lonely year,” he says from a distance.
There is dirt against Gawain’s palms and tears in his eyes. “A year?” He cannot hide his surprise.
“Only just,” the Lord responds. He is kneeling now at Gawain’s side, furs dipping close to the ground as he reaches out to turn Gawain’s gaze towards him, as if looking for something he will find only there. “A year in some great land. And yet you have come back to me as promised.”
“Did you doubt me?” Gawain is pained at the thought, heart beating in his chest like a horse’s unrelenting gait on a long journey home.
“Not for a moment,” the Lord replies.
And Gawain cannot help it. He pulls himself up by the Lord’s furs until they are of a height and then brings his hand to the Lord’s face. His own hand there against the man’s cheek, he feels bound to this place in front of him. His thumb against the Lord’s cheek, moving downwards towards his lips.
“I see now,” he says, heart full, “why you did this to me.”
“Yet you did tell me to unhand you,” the Lord says in answer, though he leans into the touch.
“I did,” Gawain whispers, sky breaking overhead. “For I thought if you did not stop, I would be bewitched to stay. Not by witchcraft, but by touch. Perhaps that has become true now.” He marvels at the feeling of this man’s skin beneath his fingertips, the cut of his beard and surprising softness of his lips. “Though I still fear it is a queer thing that I do not want to stop.”
“There is nothing to fear here,” the Lord tells him and so it must be true.
It is, in the end, a day spent as it always is between them.
Gawain is pulled to his feet and led to break fast at the table where they first dined together. The deerhound is cheered to see him and the meal before them is hearty. He missed the cuts of meat dearly in his time away, but thinks the vegetables paltry in comparison to the ones he now feels able to cultivate with his own hands, and he tells the Lord as much.
Plates cleaned, Gawain is led to the stables and shown that his weak-legged horse has grown strong in his absence and his missed him, too. Gawain presses a kiss to his muzzle and whispers a promise to leave no longer if Keincaled will promise the same. It is by no means a stronger bond between the two of them than the one that he cherished with Gringolet, but he dares to believe that some day it might grow to be.
Out back he finds there is a garden. It is sad to look upon, with wilted leaves and withering vegetables, the soil dry and taken over by rocks. He will fix it, he decides and tells the Lord with confidence. By his own hand. The stables and farming will be his from now on.
“And the sewing,” he adds, though quietly, prepared for some scorn no matter how small.
“I could not have hoped for better. I have some projects for you,” the Lord says to him, with no pause. “I am afraid in your absence I have been found lacking, as you well can see.”
“Then that is why I am here,” Gawain replies, thinking it true.
The sun beats down upon this land which he now has some stake in, a place that he can make in his own image greater, in the ways that he sees fit.
Gawain’s mouth is red with wine as he is pushed against the wall outside of his rooms by the Lord, both of their bodies thrumming with an energy that cannot be abated by any other means. Night has fallen and he is brave with spirits and with knowing.
“Would you turn me away again, my Knight?” the Lord asks, though by the look on his face it is not a mean question.
“No, no,” Gawain says, shaking his head, a smile on his face like none he has worn before. “Though the truth is this. I am no knight.”
“Of this,” the Lord says, softly, “I have always known.”
In that hallway, dressed in naught but blue, Gawain sinks to his knees and feels at home, face pressed to the thigh of his Lord. He revels in the touch at the crown of his head and should be happy with that and nothing else. But there is more to life, he now knows, than simple happiness. There is also the matter of what he would have with no questions asked and no judgement passed.
There are no questions or judgement here. Only a scene of his own making.
Deft fingers at the drawstrings of the Lord’s breeches, pulling them down to reveal a thick hardness which Gawain is delirious at the sight of. Of course he has seen such things before, but never like this, in truth. Never offered in front of him, warm against his lips as he kisses at the skin.
It is what he wants.
“I will not be skilled,” he murmurs, reaching upwards so that he can stroke the shaft, like he would his own.
The Lord’s fingers are still in his hair, posessive above all things. “I would not want you to be,” he says, voice deep and heavy. That familiar roll of thunder in Gawain’s gut once more, that he might be spoken to like this. “For if you were it would mean you would have done this for anyone else, and help me but I am selfish when it comes to you.”
Gawain is not selfless himself, but he finds himself giving this night. With some strange satisfaction, he becomes aware that he likes the taste as he takes the cock upon his tongue, rolling his tongue over the head of it and bringing to mind the things he has enjoyed being done to himself in the past. His lips ache with the work of it, and he cannot imagine the sounds he is making are appealing, these desperate gasping breaths as he pulls away and unbidden whines as he leans in.
But the way the Lord holds onto him would say differently.
It is not the first time Gawain has heard his name said in such a way, but the fire it lights in his belly is so unlike anything he has felt before that it may as well be.
When he cannot take it any longer, he leans himself back, still on his knees, and begins to coax the Lord to completion. Whatever shyness he may have in his ability, he does not have about the way he knows he must look now.
Wild-eyed and chest exposed, he says, “Use me as you see fit, for nothing would make me happier.”
As he wants it to happen, so it does, the Lord spending himself in a most pleasing way, thick warmth on Gawain’s face, in his hair and on his lips. He lets his hands drop to his sides and his eyes close. Like the sky this morning, he thinks himself a sight to be taken in and remembered. It is the first time he has wanted to be seen in such a state, and it continues as the Lord pulls him up from his knees and down the hall.
He is not pushed into a dark corner by someone else’s hands, nor is he cowed by his own self-flagellating positioning. Not once did he hate any of the woman he lay with, or find them ill-suited at the task at hand. It was in his own inability to enjoy coupling with them that he found disgust, and that feeling is not with him as he enters the Lord’s chambers.
Too drawn up in his own emotional state, Gawain does not have the wherewithal to marvel at the room he finds himself in. More than anything he notes the lit fire across from the bed, and the silk sheets that touch his skin as he falls onto them.
His lips still taste of salt and his gut is heavy with the realization that he alone is the pretty one here. An appealing figure on the edge of a bed. Perhaps it has never occurred to him before now, but he is not sure how. It is so desperately obvious. The delirious feeling in his stomach when he watched women beckon him forward, it was because he wished to be in their place.
And now he is.
The Lord’s furs fall to the floor and Gawain is swept up in a sudden thought.
“I would like to see you,” he says, without care for how it sounds. “All the way through.”
“I would have you from behind if it was what you wished,” the Lord replies, moving closer. He does that touch again, that sacred thing. His hand on the side of Gawain’s face, such a sweet caress Gawain swore he could taste it in the wine tonight. “But it is with great relief that I hear you will allow me to look upon you.”
Gawain breathes out, most pleased and terrified.
Quick are their hands in undressing, and he cannot remember the last time such a thing brought him burgeoning joy rather than simple distraction from his self-loathing. He slows only when it comes to his last article, the dyed blue shirt he has worn since he returned.
“You did give this to me,” he says, sure of the answer already. “To wear like a wife.”
“To wear like mine,” the Lord agrees.
Gawain is soft in his removal of it, mind bright and fingers trembling. Before him is his Lord, who looks old enough to be his father and yet is older still. Were he in court, he would avert his eyes in shame for wanting such a thing. But here, now, he refuses. Why would he not want this man, tall and strong as he is. Arms made by hunting and fingers covered in rings.
The Lord pushes him backwards with a kiss that is filthy and tastes of flavors Gawain does not know the name for. It does not matter, he decides as they slide together, because he has time to learn them all.
Against the silk he is warm and wanted and wants in return.
For Gawain it has always been a matter of appearances, of proving to himself some ideal and having it proven in return. He had thought once that if a woman loved him, if he held her close because she asked him to, he would become a candle lit aflame. And yet it is here and now that he burns for the first time in his life by only a touch, by the passing of hands over the taut line of his stomach.
“Would you tell me what you see when you look upon me?” he asks.
The Lord is bent over him, imposing and comforting all at once. He brushes a curl of hair back from Gawain’s forehead and it is a kindness that makes him think for the first time: lover.
“I see such an appealing sight, I struggle to know where to begin,” the Lord tells him, drawing that hand down the line of his face, his fingers coming to rest on Gawain’s lips.
Gawain opens them in answer and, perhaps primed for it now, he is only minutely surprised to find he likes the taste of this man’s fingers against his tongue. It is not something he has ever done before, though he is aware that in scope this may be the smallest of the new things he will try tonight. But he likes it with a sort of desperation that he did not think was possible for him.
“Eager,” is the word the Lord uses, voice deep and appreciative as Gawain licks at the underside of his fingers, and he is not ashamed at the whine that lets loose from the back of his throat in response.
“Yes,” he gasps out as the Lord pulls out of his mouth. His lips are swollen now, he can feel it, and he imagines they are deeper in color than before. “Yes, I am impatient and have waited long for this. Longer than I should have.” He thinks of himself against these sheets, spreads his legs wider and feels his own cock twitch against his thigh as he tilts his face to the side. “Am I to wait longer, my Lord?”
“Coy thing,” the Lord breathes out. “Do you realize that any waiting I have done has not been for lack of wanting? You must know how you look.”
Hand outreached, against the Lord’s chest, sturdy and solid and covered in coarse hair, Gawain begs once more, “Tell me.”
“You are a thing I must have and covet,” the Lord says, and Gawain is struck speechless as his own cock is touched so sublimely by the Lord’s great hand. His fingers are calloused from the repeated strike of bowstrings, and they are wide and skilled in turn. “But not a thing at all, for a thing could not want in return, and you do.”
“I do,” Gawain agrees, arching back, “I do.” He fears he may come so soon as to be disappointing, and holds himself back in an earnest need to please.
The Lord’s other hand is soon below his chin, fingers curled underneath and lifting upwards as if appraising the cut of his jaw. Gawain can scarcely breathe to be mindful of how he looks as he is held there, disoriented by the steady touch that is bringing him close, so close.
“You are a sight,” the Lord tells him. His voice gives no indication of faltering, and Gawain feels both powerless and powerful in his hands. “Has no one else told you this?”
“Why would you ask that, when it would not matter if anyone else had said it but you?” Gawain’s tone is dreamlike, words slipping out of his open mouth before he can even think them.
He has felt this before, this rising tension in his belly and this hand on him, and he is ready for it to end the same, but then the Lord is pulling back. Gawain is on the edge, the precipice of a great fall, hands gripping the sheets behind him and sweat at the small of his back.
The Lord’s fingers, still below his chin, grab there. “Not until I say so, my little Knight.”
It is to be sweet agony then, Gawain seeing dark spots in his vision and forcing himself to breathe evenly, in and out and in and out. He is still achingly hard, in a sort of peril he could not have dreamed of before now. Or no, he has done and he has faced it. This is that senseless terror in the chapel, turned on its head. Deep, abiding anticipation, but now he knows exactly what to expect. He is beyond ready, more than prepared, yet he must wait and will do, until this strange man gives him release.
He knows not from where the Lord procures the oil that slicks his fingertips now, distracted as he is during the process. Only that it is warm and slick and he is startled by the feeling of it against the backs of his legs. He allows himself to be positioned and enjoys the feeling of it without shame, his Lord pushing him back onto the plentiful pillows of the bed before he begins to press against Gawain’s entrance.
He is ready for it to hurt and it would be a falsehood to say it does not, but it is more akin to a satisfying stretch than it is the deep cut of a blade. And, moreover, when the Lord asks after his pleasure, he is unable to answer in any way other than, “Do not stop, please.”
It is such a queer word—please. He has scarcely said it before now, barring the times that a knife has been pressed against his neck. It would be unbecoming of a man of his stature to beg otherwise and perhaps even then. But here he finds the word refuses to leave him, and that he cannot bring himself to mind.
“Please,” he says as the Lord pushes two thick fingers inside him. “Please,” he gasps out as the Lord spreads his thighs apart further, pushes his legs back so that he is folded half-in on himself. “Please,” he barely manages to get out as he turns his head to the side when he feels the Lord’s hardness at his entrance.
“I would hear you say it more plainly, sweet,” the Lord murmurs against his lips.
“Have me, as you will.” Gawain cannot stop that traitorous whine that tears from the back of his throat as he speaks. “For I would have you, my Lord. All of you.”
So he does, his Lord pushing inside of him and it is like some spot in him has been empty all this time until now. He is gasping, grabbing and so deeply touched it is heavenly. Why he has spent his whole life without this, he does not know. It is a slow burn all the way down and he is thankful for it, right to the point that they are flush up against one another.
“Stay, stay,” he begs, uncomely and low. “Stay there and do not move.”
“Anything, for you,” the Lord says in return, pushing Gawain’s hair off of his forehead. His skin is damp with sweat and they are both burning from the inside out. Candles flicker and Gawain does not know if the Lord’s eyes can be called green, but he will call them such. That most favored of colors, here, and such a match for blue.
A moment suspended in time like dust in a ray of light, something which cannot be, but is. Gawain is overwhelmed with the realization that he may have this, not just tonight or tomorrow but for such a length of time that one might say it is without end.
“Move,” he whispers, finally.
With quickness the Lord does as Gawain commands him. He pulls out and back in and Gawain can feel his own cock bobbing against his stomach, can feel the Lord’s hand reach to take it in grasp. He hisses at the contact and, though he wants to keep them open, his eyes close without his permission. It is all too much, all too much.
He does not know how to put it into words other than that it is a narrowing of focus, all the way down to the cadence of their breathing and the feeling of skin on skin. The heady discovery of some place inside of him that is rapturous to have touched in such a way. The pleasure that rocks through him lasts for both a sublime eternity and a passing second in time. In his mind he is cresting the waves of an ocean he has only seen in the distance, and traversing mountains he knows so well they may serve as his second home.
Where he was once without anchor, untethered and uncouth, he is now fit to be here and only here. On this bed, with this man inside him, with this rush of air from his lungs.
“Please,” he says, just one last time, and then he is coming himself. His own seed on his chest, white against warm brown, a painting in all but name. Stars in his eyes, constellations he once learned the names of but forgot long ago. It does not matter any longer, and may never have mattered at all.
Rising from his satisfied delirium, he throws himself into his side of the work, taken by a sudden vision as he pushes himself back up and against his Lord.
“Next time, I will ride you,” he says, burning bright and raw. He can feel that slick slide becoming erratic inside him, and is newly aware of the effect that he is able to have, even on a man such as this. Especially on a man such as this. “I will keep you in place and you will do nothing but watch.”
Without another word, his Lord is spending inside him, hot and wet and everything Gawain has ever wanted. He falls back, exhausted beyond measure and breathing in huge gulps of air as the lit candles flicker overhead like the winking eyes of some great god.
In the corner of the room, there is a freshly filled water basin and his Lord uses one of the white linen cloths laid there to clean them both. Gawain makes no move to help him, only flutters his eyes closed and allows himself to be taken care of. It is the closest he has ever felt to the divine.
The last embers of the fire put out and the room lit low, they lay next to each other in the darkness.
Gawain moves to his side so that he can lean over his Lord, pressing himself against the man’s body with fervor.
“May I tell you one last thing for the night?” he asks, eyes heavy with sleep and a hand roaming to lie on his Lord’s chest.
“Of course,” his Lord replies, and Gawain can feel his voice in his chest, a real thing. “You may tell me anything, and I shall not sleep until you are done.”
Gawain believes this is a lie he can forgive. A small sort of trick, but exactly the kind he likes. His Lord may fall into slumber before he is done speaking, but it is in the trying that Gawain finds more value. The sweetness of a lover doing what he can to stay awake while Gawain still speaks. It makes him think of more nights like this and more mornings, besides.
Leaning in close, Gawain whispers against his Lord’s lips, “I should like to be kept by you here.” He presses their lips together, chastely and is chased after when he pulls away. Another kiss, firm and true.
“Then I will keep you,” his Lord replies.
“I once dreamed of darkness forevermore,” Gawain admits, eyes searching, his Lord’s body a warm comfort beneath him. “I thought that was my fate. But I see no darkness here, only you.”
He leans in again, and thinks of shirked expectations and the joy he has found in his own wanting path. This is not a life he could have had alive, and there is so much to do. Books to be read and gardens to tend to, meals to share and touches to be exchanged. He may never hold a sword again and only ride a horse for merriment. He will dress in blue and sit beside his Lord and be his partner in all things.
It will be up to whomever next stumbles upon them to give Gawain what name they see fit. Their opinion will hardly matter to him. He has found his own way.