A Full Moon Tale for the Winter Sleep Moon
It was Sir Rufus’s year. His straw came up shortest, so this year it was his duty when the inevitable came around. Formerly, the rather uncomfortable chore had fallen to those whom the Green Knight chose to single out with his inscrutable logic. However, several years ago a more equitable system had been put in place. Those eligible for the task now drew straws beforehand at the Michaelmas Feast. It was still a game of chance, but at least one had time to prepare. Though how to prepare was another question. Sir Rufus found he was not equal to the answer.
Sir Rufus sighed when he drew out the broom twig that fated him to face the Green Knight.
Sir Rufus enjoyed being a knight as long as he avoided the messy parts; he deplored bloodshed and discomfort. The Green Knight’s challenge was hardly a frightful enterprise after all these years. But it was so tiresome. Sir Rufus was now obliged to spend the early months of next winter seeking out the Green Knight. Where? None could say though over a dozen knights had made the journey. Sir Gawain had done it twice. Because he was just that macho and masochistic kind of guy. Liked the smell of horse and bragged about sleeping rough under the stars. Seemed to actually relish adventure. But being the King’s nephew and, thus far, heir to the crown, Sir Gawain had been prohibited from putting his person at risk. Not that there was a risk beyond contracting a horrible head cold, but still…
Sir Rufus was no Gawain. In so many ways. He enjoyed bathing. He detested travel if the inns weren’t accommodating and well marked along the way. He felt pain and discomfort were thoroughly unnecessary, noble cause or otherwise. And this cause’s nobility questionable at best.
But all that wouldn’t happen for another year. This whole undertaking came with a more immediate onus as well. During the feast on this coming New Year’s Day, he would meet his faux foe. Moreover, Sir Rufus was required to put on a show of surprise, bravado and revulsion to keep the verdant brute happy. Well, the revulsion would be natural enough. But bravado? One year Sir Owen had snapped his chubby fingers in the Green Knight’s face as it rolled around the floor, garnering uproarious laughter; but the insulted body had leaped up and lopped off Owen’s head in the middle of the feasting hall. Much to the chagrin of the King, Owen’s head didn’t reaffix itself to his shoulders. It was quite a nuisance. There was paperwork.
Castle rumor, being what it was, made the taudry enterprise glow in the luminous shades of romance. Some knights had claimed covert interludes with a green kirtled queen. Some had described prolonged dalliances amongst the fairies and the King’s other bizarre relatives. A few returned with tales of mighty battles atop ancient burial mounds with the Green Knight himself. Not one, however, bore any obvious marks from the encounter. They all maintained that magical aid was rendered to each of them in turn by a mysterious Lord and Lady whose castle only seemed to exist around Yuletide and was unplottable on any map even then.
Castle gossip being what it is, the real adventure was very likely closer to random wandering up along the cold, drizzly northwest coast and then wandering back down without meeting one blessed soul, noble, green or otherwise. And there were no inns on the coast.
But there was the tantalizing fact that the green monster did, truly, allow — indeed, command — the chosen knight to strike off his shaggy green head every New Year. However boring that little trick had become with repetition, it still suggested, along with his peculiar hue, that the Green Knight had at least some connection with Adventure. A few of the rumors could conceivably be true enough to justify the annoyance.
Could… But not likely. Sir Rufus sighed again.
Short straw in hand, Sir Rufus smiled weakly at the King and did his courtesy to the Queen and then begged off the rest of the Michaelmas Feast. He was suddenly and uncharacteristically in no mood for gourmandizing. And his mood did not improve as autumn shaded into winter and the Midwinter revelries drew nigh. In fact, his impending encounter with his green adversary put him quite out of sorts for the remainder of the year. Of course, he would not actually travel until the end of harvest next autumn, but the New Year’s charade always depressed him. Most years he made a point of contracting a fever on the eve of the feast.
So he spent the most of three moons moping and working his way through the Queen’s gifts to her “champion”, which mostly consisted of the better bottles from the royal cellars, the only true benefit of this business. To placate the King for missing so many feasts, which came with entirely too much unconvincing camaraderie and poorly concealed grins from the Round Table cohort — better you than me, mate — Sir Rufus put it about that he was preparing himself for New Year’s Day. Fantastically enough, the King believed him.
New Year’s Day arrived, and with the feast came the ever so punctual Green Knight, riding his ugly green mount right into the Great Hall as usual. Rufus, as arranged, accepted the Knight’s challenge as soon as it was offered. He even mustered what he considered to be a passing show of injured honor. At least it passed judgement from Green Knight
“Come, then, boy,” bellowed the Green Knight jovially, “and deliver your blow, and in one year’s time I will match it.” Rufus caught himself just before he rolled his eyes, but something of his ennui must have played across his face because the Green Man puffed himself up and added in a theatrical growl, “Think you not that you will escape our tryst.”
“Really! Is he that amnesic?” muttered Rufus to himself as he ambled over to the Green Horse, which was snorting and pawing the floor in the midst of the Great Hall. He made as if to draw his own blade, knowing the Green Knight would foist the green axe into his hands presently.
“Nay, that is but a child’s toy,” the Green Knight roared derisively. “We will use my instrument, I think,” he sneered lasciviously as he brandished the enormous axe.
Oh, please. . .
Sir Rufus took the axe in both hands. Well, they weren’t exaggerating its excessive weight. He could barely lift it. But lift it he did. Up above his head. And then down it came with a rush and a grotesque splattering thud. And there went the head rolling across the flagstones, trailing green blood everywhere. Rufus breathed heavily through his nostrils to hide his instinctual revulsion. He managed to hold his dinner down. But dear heavens, it was all so indelicate. And in such a pathetic manner. Was this really necessary every New Year’s Day? Didn’t the glaucous knave ever get tired of his stupid game? Apparently not…
Soon enough the body stirred itself and clambered upright to its feet. The hall erupted in gasps. Some few were truly astonished, primarily the youngsters who had never had the privilege of attending the New Year’s Feast and the ladies who clearly found the whole thing abhorrent. Most of the cries, however, were far too loudly exaggerated to be credible. Yet the great green brute always bought it. This year was no exception. The body bent and swooped its leering head into the crook of an elbow then turned to wrench the axe out of Sir Rufus’s grasp.
Rufus stifled a yawn.
As the body mounted the Green Horse, the head snarled at Rufus. “Look you toward our next meeting, boy. There will I match your paltry blow. And if you fail to seek me out before the year is done, it will be the worse for you.”
With that, the Green Knight turned his horse and galloped out of the hall.
The servants immediately began to wash away the viridescent gore. Chatter picked up where suspended as if nothing remarkable had happened. But that was the way of castle talk…
Sir Rufus sighed morosely. Then he drained his cup and made his escape from the feast.
To be continued…
And if you haven’t seen this…
One of the most intriguing films I’ve ever seen and certainly the most interesting interpretation of the anonymous epic poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is David Lowery’s The Green Knight. You could watch this movie five time straight (ahem…) and find new meaningful weirdisms in each viewing. And don’t even get me started on the ending… Does it end?!?
©Elizabeth Anker 2022