The Green Man

Looking back and wondering what life's lost I sit to contemplate the meaning of it all. I rest the hilt of my sword on my knee and undo the iron cuff of my gauntlet so my skin will breathe for the first time in these many months. The rest will be off when I have a mind to it, lying there like the hollow skeleton it is. A knight sleeps in his armor while abroad contrary to noble belief. On the one hand it keeps you warm beside the fire, on the other it is a pain to take off without a blacksmith's fork. But my days of gallantry are done, for now. I remove myself from my shell so I may take some time to be a man of words, and lift my torch to the Green Man for showing me the way.

I was a squire of sixteen in the court of my noble family, the year many graduated to knighthood in the King's service. But although I trained ambitiously for the honor I had yet to curry favor with him. I had seldom been beyond the castle walls, and since the young Prince, my cousin, was healthy there was no fear of me having power in my lifetime. Twenty years of peace in the kingdom provided neither the opportunity nor the need for valor.

I spent half of my time in study, half in practice. I observed the doings of the court now mostly ceremonial in nature. It was at one of these that I hoped for the unlikely event that a squire could be of indispensable service, but even the knights had little obligation than to stand and humor a very old and very bored sovereign.

"We are getting too fat for our mail." he grumbled before the multitude. "My blade sticks in its scabbard from the rust that has accumulated on it. Where are the acts of bravery I knew in my youth? I haven't seen a man's blood spilt in ten years! Jousts, brawls, duels, engagements, ambushes, clashing, gouging, stabbing, amputating...."

The nobles looked at each other as the King attempted to reason.

"Is this the price of prosperity?" he demanded. "This kingdom emerged from far more interesting times. I know how to fight. I do not know how to deal with this predicament."

His most decorated knight responded as was his responsibility.

"Sire, the strength of your leadership has allowed us all to take wives and live to see true contentment."

"Yes, and you Sir I hear are more contented than most." the King ejaculated.

As I endeavored to understand this reply the mumbling crowd looked up and the herald-horns sounded as if a foreign dignitary were entering the castle gates. It was customary to pay tribute to a king during a gathering such as this, but a traveling lord had not come to call since before I could remember. The King's eyes were fixed on the approaching figure. I craned my neck from within the crowd to see who it was.

The visitor walked slowly as if he awaited the leisure of no man. Women gasped at the sight of him. He was a head taller than anyone present and his limbs were those of a goliath. He wore the armor of a distant land, crossed vines adorned his chest and not only was his skin green but his beard and wild hair were olive. He carried his helmet in his hand.

The crowd parted before him, the knights fingering their hilts. What fascinated me more than this man's appearance was his expression. He looked around in wonderment at the walls and tapestries he passed as if he had never seen civilization. With brash confidence, even amusement, he locked eyes with our monarch.

"What errand brings you to my throne, good sir knight?" the King asked curiously.

"I come to challenge the mightiest warrior in your court to a duel!" he declared with a thundering voice.

The people whispered. The King's eyebrows raised.

"But you have no sword." he said after a pause.

"I do not duel with swords." the visitor responded.

"Then what is your challenge?"

The green man looked around until he saw an empty suit in the corner of the chamber carrying an oversized battle-axe.

"Wield your boldest knight that axe." he said, pointing. "I will kneel and not flinch until he has taken a swing. If he cannot slay me in one blow, I will take the axe and he must kneel for me."

The knights stared amongst themselves. The crowd no longer resorted to whispering, until the King silenced them with a hand.

"I will bear witness to your challenge, Sir." he said. "Who among my champions will accept?"

Ladies of the court grasped their husbands' arms from behind. More eyes were focused on the floor than on the throne. "Not one of you?" he demanded. "He's letting you have the first blow for Christ's sake!"

Seizing the opportunity I sprang to life, removed myself from the others and dropped to one knee at the royal feet.

"I will be your champion Sire." I said wholeheartedly.

"Nephew?" the King responded. "I am surprised and pleased at your bravery. Lay the blade of that axe upon this man's neck and I will lay my sword upon your shoulder."

I rose to my feet, thirty faces looking upon me with respect for the first time as if I'd just been born. I never imagined it would be so simple to earn my place among them. The green man looked down on me with a wry smile.

I was handed the axe. The weight of it alone could sever a man's throat with little effort. The green man knelt, still amused, and bowed his head to the grey stones.

"Make it a clean cut." the King whispered.

Thinking the manner in which I conducted myself the most important factor, I stood next to the foreigner and held the weapon aloft. I hesitated, the fear of taking the life of a stranger swept over me.

"Before I do it, will you not tell us your name and where you come from?" I asked him.

"Already know you everything you need." he replied at length.

The King nodded for me to commit the act. The green man remained perfectly still as I lifted the blade and brought it down upon the back of his neck with all my strength. The crowd gasped, his head separated from his body and clattered to the stones below like a thing of wood. I stared, slack-jawed at what I had done.

Not a sound was heard in the chamber. Everyone had expected something to happen at the last moment but the knight was true to his word. I had killed a most remarkable man.

Nothing could have astounded me more than when the severed head began to speak on its own! An unearthly voice commanded the body to stand of its own accord and it began to step forward one foot at a time as if driven by demons. I could do nothing but watch the headless hulk go about its business. It stooped to pick up the head and placed it squarely back into position between the shoulders.

The green man blinked for a moment and regarded himself as if to ensure everything was in working order. Then he turned and grinned at me, unharmed.

"What are you made of!" I exclaimed in disbelief.

"It matters not." he said in the same confident tone as before. "You have dealt your blow. Give me the axe. I knelt for you, now you will kneel for me."

The attention of all was drawn into a ball in my throat now choking me. I thought I would break into a fever on the spot. I trembled as he approached and took the weapon from my hand. I had never conceived this chain of events, but there was nothing to do now but keep my word. I would die a squire.

I knelt as the green man took a couple of practice swings making a whoosh sound through the air. He wielded the instrument as easily as a boy playing with a stick. The corners of my eyes became moist. He looked to his witness the King who nodded somberly, and raised the blade a great distance in the air to strike me down. I shuddered at the first tiny movement of his arm.

"What!" he exclaimed in utter amazement. "You flinch? I did not flinch when you struck!"

"Just get it over with." I said quietly.

He lowered the axe-head to the ground and leaned upon its handle. I turned and looked up at him, helpless and confused.

"There is no honor in this." he stated. "I came to fight a man. I take no pleasure in slaughtering a boy. A knight does not prey upon the weak."

I had never felt so lowly and unprepared in my life. I was worthless, a thing to be spared because it took no skill to defeat me. I wondered if it would be better to take the blow than live with the disgrace.

"I will not be completing my task today." the green man declared. "However, I will allow you to keep your word and redeem yourself in the process. I will postpone my challenge for one year, so that you may become a man before I make my cut. I will give you a riddle, if you have solved it in one year's time I will release you from our pact."

I nodded slowly at his offer.

"Are we agreed?"

"Yes." I responded.

"Then commit these lines to memory...." he said, lifting his hand.

"All you see is false. All you know is wrong.
Those bestowed with power are weak and those without it, strong.
All you hear is silence. All you feel is stone.
With strangers you are welcome and with those you know, alone.
A year from now when heavy brow and beard adorn your face,
and wisdom fills your mind I shall come hither to this place,
to strike my final blow unless you have my riddle solved,
and remedy our quarrel till the matter is resolved.
Hasten then, we'll meet again and may your skin be tough.
My business here is at an end. Fie! Fie! Enough!"

A billow of green smoke like a thundercloud erupted at his feet and consumed his entire body. It cleared in a matter of seconds and he was gone.

The people were aghast, but not more than I. It would take the entire group to recall his words because at the moment I could not repeat a single line. Silence ensued in the chamber. The King drew out his sword and stepped forward.

"By that man's generosity you live." he said. "And on top of that you have been given a quest. I said I would bestow honor upon your name if you accepted his challenge and you have done so. Kneel once more, not to die, but to be reborn."

I bowed my head as he touched the tip of the blade to my shoulder.

"A knight is an example to everyone around him." he recited, too weary to remember the rest. "Let it be so with you. Arise, Sir G'wayen. You are a member of this court."

The clapping of gauntlets thundered as I stood.

I slept soundly in my quarters and awoke a new man. All manner of dreams had flooded my skull until I was no longer afraid but invigorated by the challenge ahead. My friends congratulated me on my new title during the day and for the first week everyone wanted to be seen with me. I was finally enjoying what I had wanted most of my life.

I observed a change that I now know was my last childhood thoughts being replaced by grown ambitions. I wanted to begin the quest immediately, practicing with my sword to a degree that was no longer sport but combat. Many accoutrements came with knighthood and most of these could be found in the blacksmith's shop where I now spent much of my time. He made a blade for me to replace the rusted one I took from the pile every day, and was beginning to work on my armor. As a knight I was even permitted to supervise and make changes as I pleased. I got to know the blacksmith very well.

I had a variety of new clothes and other gifts made by women including a green-and-gold tunic I now wore all the time. Most knights the moment they were dubbed left to begin their quest immediately (traditionally the next day) which is what made them a new man (by the time everyone saw them again they had literally become one). I felt this desire to leave myself, but I had an entire year and I had always known I was different from the others regardless.

Days flew by and became weeks by the time my armor was satisfactory and I felt I was trained enough to tackle anything I might encounter. Interest in me had festered and died which prompted me to move along. I had rarely been outside the castle gates and was certain I had to brave the unknown in order to begin a quest. I imagined I would be abroad for the whole year, returning full circle with hair on my face and the riddle solved ready to face the Green Man.

A dozen friends and relatives gathered to see me off as I mounted my new steed and slowly made my way through the main hall to the gate. My armor had an amber glint like the tan of my skin and was formed to fit my small but highly defined frame. I passed the banners of my homeland and carts piled with straw not expecting to see them again for a long time. The huge, open gate with its vaulted arch made the outside world ominous and I truly realized how sheltered my youth had been. I had no idea what was beyond those green hills now visible in the morning mist.

The hooves beneath me hit the dust that would become a trail.

I would not be stopping until dark. The path led me over treeless hills and hollows as I drank from my canteen and watched the tall castle grow smaller in the distance. I camped at the lowest point I had seen so far, making my fire at the base of some rocks where the trail split into two. A log hewn from a distant forest was my bench and I hobbled my horse to a naked limb sticking out of the ground probably ten years dead.

I had survival skill from study, I just had never fully put it into practice, so the simple act of sparking the kindling and sitting back to watch my handiwork come to life was a wonderment beyond reason. From this day on my abilities would finally be put to use, and I yearned for the real test of my brain and blade that was yet to come.

I dreamt of the Green Man. He came to me in many forms surrounded by strange foreign accoutrements and magic that charmed the senses. His disembodied head watched me from the midst of a green inferno, his eyes like emerald coals. He was terrifying and yet by sparing me he had been generous. This combination made him something like a feared protector, like a father. This uncomfortable thought was the last that came to me as I could take no more of his stare and gasped awake. It would be dawn soon. The stars and the nighttime glow of the horizon were enough to navigate the trail so I went my way.

After daybreak I reached the brink of the plateau on which my uncle's kingdom stood, then continued downhill through a pass for the rest of the way. I was still within a hard day's ride of the castle but I directed the horse leisurely to savor the experience. In the mist ahead there was a break of forest, a patch of which extended in my direction like a curved finger beckoning me. The woods weren't intimidating in any way, in fact I could clearly see the other side not five minutes ride from the first stand, but there may have been a creek and some wild game so I made it my objective.

Indeed there was a stream right off so I filled my canteen and reclined against the base of a tree for a brief spell. The sound of rustling leaves made me imagine someone was sneaking up on me so I turned swiftly, and there was a small rabbit staring at me from the weeds. Now swordplay was my particular skill not archery, so the act of successfully landing a wild hare for my midday meal was a challenge worthy of my attention.

I removed my small bow from its quiver on the horse's saddle and notched an arrow. My prize turned and fled but since the woods were not extensive I followed it on foot. I sighted the animal in a tiny clearing and loosed from behind an oak, landing a shot on the first try as its body pummeled to the ground. I struck my armored knee in triumph and went to retrieve my kill.

As I approached the clearing my expression turned into a frown. I was certain I had hit the rabbit and heard its squeal, but here was the arrow stuck in dry earth without a trace of blood or fur. I knelt to pull it out and saw the same animal in the brush nearby where it leapt away uninjured. I scratched my head and stared before returning to my steed.

Now in these simple times a knight did not expect when he awoke in the morning that he would see something so confounding as a man survive with his head cut off or an animal outwit the arrow that pierced its heart. He expected these no more than he expected to find his brigandine inside-out or his hands switched. The laws of nature maintained sanity, if a hunter found his kill missing he would act predictably and look for the thief. But if it is gone because the animal had never been killed in the first place, people start looking at the man differently and keep their distance so they don't catch the same ailment and begin to see things themselves. But whether the Green Man had bewitched me or I had contracted some nameless ill, I was clearly unable to take the life of man nor beast and thereby incapable of fulfilling a quest. For this reason I turned my horse around, and with my head down returned in the direction I had come.

There is no welcome for a knight who returns home in disgrace. He is supposed to be willing to die first, to keep going until he makes the choice between death and honor. But I was unwilling to die of starvation in the wilderness or challenge the first pilgrim I came across just to take his bread.

I had failed. A life of adventure had been nothing more than a product of my imagination, honor a symptom of disease contracted from a sheltered life. Chivalry was a child's dream sparked by the ramblings of a King pining for events before my birth. The only future I had now was to age and decay in straw-filled rooms always waiting for a meal, sustained by my half-noble blood to live a long, fruitless existence as a ward of the kingdom and die an old man nobody knows. And I would not even have this if I couldn't give the Green Man a satisfactory answer to his riddle some ten months hence.

My only hope for honor then was to defeat him, so instead of searching abroad I studied his verse line-by-line in my chamber. I discovered that I had forgotten part of it. Once I was given my knighthood I was so eager to go on a quest I had put that in the forefront. I hadn't considered that a quest might not be required to solve it.

One day the young Prince, my cousin, came to see me fighting off imaginary demons with his wooden sword. He challenged me to a duel which I amiably accepted. I only had my real sword to oblige him with so I would have to be careful and feign instead of thrust.

I saw immediately that he already had far more skill than I did at his age, which impressed me since he had barely been able to strike a still object when I had left. But my surprise would increase as I could see he was clearly blocking and evading my movements with the skill not of a child but someone who had practiced for years! He landed a hit I did not expect and frowned in disappointment that I was not truly giving it my all. So I obliged him further.

I swiped in greater earnest to find he was still warding me off with ease. I had no intention of harming a child, particularly one of my own kin and heir to the throne, but I found myself increasing my speed and strike in frustration just to keep up with him. How did a youth of less than ten years of age acquire this kind of mettle? He was fending me off with maneuvers I had only seen in tournaments between the finest knights of the court, nay more so! I was amazed his piece of wood did not break into splinters from my blows and that his small body not only maintained its footing but advanced! Had it been a blade he would have killed me.

I forfeited and leaned back against the wall to catch my breath. The Prince was not even sweating, and gave me a smirk as he turned around and skipped back the way he came. I stood there looking down at my sword. I could not believe the humiliation I had just received at being bested by a boy! My dismay was even further than what it had been before.

Strange events bring strange thoughts, and what brought me to the decision I made I cannot say except that I knew a knight who could not master a day’s quest nor defeat a weaker opponent was not a knight at all. My life was meaningless unless I could quickly make remedy of it. If not I had no reason to wait for the Green Man to return and may as well hurl myself from the highest parapet. I therefore resolved, at the risk of my own life, to challenge the finest swordsman in the King’s service to a duel.

Now having just been beaten by a whelp with a toy sword I make no claim to have been in my right mind, but something inside of me seemed to have a purpose. The King and Queen were astonished by my request, but reluctantly agreed figuring they should not deny a disgraced knight’s right to an honorable death.

The Green Man

The court convened in the chamber. My armor seemed tarnished and yellow compared to the gleaming heavy plate of my opponent and my sword was the same one I had used to fight the boy. The Prince was watching with interest from the crowd although he seemed to be the only one, the King and his knights looking solemn as if they were presiding over an unscheduled execution. I stood tete-a-tete with the most skilled fighter in the kingdom, his sword tinseled with gold until the King stepped wearily back and we took our positions.

My opponent’s legs spread apart and he turned swiftly so that his blade gave him maximum cover with his other hand raised behind his head. I did likewise. At first we just clinked the points together, parrying back and forth like gentlemen. Although he was moving quickly I knew he was only trying to make me think he was putting in his best effort (how I could tell this I cannot say since I wasn’t the expert). This annoyed me so I dealt with his advances and made a lunge, nicking his hand.

He shook it off, looking at me differently this time and put more of himself into his attack. I not only defended myself with flair, but came again and put him in the defensive position, having to think on his feet. The onlookers changed their expression and began to cheer me on. They had never expected me to put up a decent fight, nor had I myself. “Come on then!” the knights encouraged their brother to put me in my place.

How was I doing this? I watched my hands and feet move as if I was not the one controlling them, and yet I desired to raise the stakes even further. We exchanged powerful blows, metal clashing and scraping as the tip of my blade went into his leather. Incredibly I felt the sudden need to put less effort into it and stood motionless with my feet together and my left arm limp at my side, still fending him off despite his best attempts. His teeth were bared and his eyes wide as I simply stared like a thing of marble.

I finally stopped toying with him and moved in for the final cut. He was beginning to lose control and simply thrashed at me as rapidly as he could. I sliced the underside of his sword arm, cutting the straps that held the armpiece and plunged my weapon into his midsection, scraping his breastplate and impaling him just beneath it. The watchers were shocked at what I had done. I pulled the sword out quickly and his body clattered loudly to the ground before the throne.

The King and Queen were on their feet. My opponent lie holding his stomach with his legs bent and a friend holding his shoulders from behind. His armor squeaked against the stones as he attempted to move. No one spoke as he grew motionless and gasped for air, his eyes pointed upward, and then he was still.

At first I was alarmed and humbled by what I had done. My goal had been survival and honor and all I had achieved was the slaughter of a good knight for which I felt I should be banished, but the fire was still in me and I looked to the King as if I knew exactly what I was doing.

“You have bested our most gifted champion.” he said with melancholy. “Although what reason you had I do not understand and certainly do not approve.”

I looked him in the face and turned to stand over the still-warm body of my adversary. I spoke as if I had no regard for authority or ceremony.

“The Green Man said that everything I see is false.” I declared. “There is no way I could have beaten this man. He should have trounced me easily. I had neither the ability nor the heart to do it, therefore he cannot be dead.”

As I said these words I knelt and took the dead man’s hand which suddenly squeezed mine in return. His eyes opened and darted around in confusion to the amazement of all. The other knights backed away as if afraid, and the King and Queen were not only speechless but now seemed irrelevant. I helped my opponent to his feet as he examined his wounds in disbelief.

“I now understand why the Green Man survived the blow.” I said clearly, and the people began to reach out in fascination to touch me, some of them kneeling and bowing their heads to me in awe.

My world had been turned upside down. I no longer had the words nor the thoughts to describe it. I was a celebrity, if that word can be used for someone the people had seen bring a man back from the dead. I passed through the castle halls like a man in a dream, surrounded by followers regarding me like the Christ with outstretched hands and heads bent to the floor. They waved fronds at me and lay cloths down for me to walk on. As for my uncle the King I had not seen any presence of him nor the Queen since the duel. In fact, there was no reason visible with my eyes that I myself was not the supreme leader and guardian of this place.

Many things seemed to be changing. The notion of being in a dream was quite strong with me. I was confounded and puzzled by much of what I saw and yet my mind kept wandering and I would quickly forget. I no longer recognized the people around me. No knights, no relatives, no friends, in fact their very raiment seemed ordinary like figures in the background of a tapestry. I had spent my life here, and yet when I entered the main hall all I saw was an oxcart and some banners and straw, like things a bad painter had left there to make it still a castle. Even the air seemed thick. Where was all the activity?

The bread I was handed seemed bitter and stale to me as I sat at the dining table. I was practically alone, and figured the only reason they had brought me food was in reverence like an offering to a shrine, since the cooks seemed to be gone. In fact a lot of people appeared to be missing. The dinner hour came and went with only some children playing in the corner and a small number of subjects attending on me or just standing around. The table still had objects sitting on it from the day and there were no other diners in sight. Where was the feast with all its drink and talk?

I went to my bedchamber and sat there alone. I was a peasant king, but a peasant nonetheless and nothing of better material than a rag. At length the young Prince came to visit me, who seemed to be the one person left with a familiar face.

“How is it with you, cousin?” he asked without playing or even looking around.

I was glad for his company but I had nothing to say that could be said to a child, until I remembered how he had beaten me the last time.

“Are you sure nothing is wrong?” he inquired. “Perhaps if you told me it can be right again.”

I looked up at him. This was the voice of the lad I had known but the words and the forwardness were new to me.

“When was the last time you saw your father?” I asked him.

He said nothing and gave no expression as if he didn’t know who I was speaking of.

“You can do better.” the boy spoke. “You engaged me with a sword and you can engage me with words. Tell me what is wrong. Maybe I have the answer.”

I could not believe the seriousness of the tone coming from his mouth, but I was prepared to consider anything at this point so I humored him.

“What is happening to this place?” I responded forcefully. “Where is the King? His throne is empty, the hearth is silent at meals, and the blacksmith and his workshop are gone with only my armor as a sign they were ever here!”

“But cousin,” he replied immediately, “you have seen far stranger things and found explanation for them. You slayed the most expert swordsman in the kingdom and brought him back to life. You spoke and his wounds closed.”

I put a hand to my brow and rose to my feet.

“Do go on.” I said with full attention.

“You said that all you see is false. All means all, does it not? Apply the same reasoning to whatever troubles you. See what happens.”

“You defeated me.” I said, pondering. “The skill I saw you wield was that of a man who had trained for years. You haven’t lived long enough to acquire it no matter what talent you were born with. So... you are not a child.”

With these words the Prince’s body began to fade before my eyes and change its shape, causing me to back away in fear until I was against the wall. I could see through him as if he were a spirit, while at the same time he seemed to be growing taller until the spectre was the same height as me. There were swirls of light and darkness in its skin and it grew increasingly faint with each passing second.

“You have all you need to know.” the apparition spoke in the voice of a grown man. “Use it to the best of your ability. That is, and always has been, your quest.”

“Wait!” I exclaimed to its vanishing face. “Who are you?”

“Just a traveler.” he responded. “I saw you and figured you could use some help.”

His figure and his voice became a shadow, neither recognizable nor human but merely a disintegrating outline ruffled by an unfelt wind. And in another moment, was gone from my sight completely.

Morning came and I was afraid almost to leave my room, but I had to inspect the further changes in my home. I passed fewer people than I had ever seen in the castle before, and those I did see were like quiet ghosts with identical cloaks and posture walking aimlessly with their heads down. No individual I recognized was left, and the crowd seemed to no longer be interested in the saint who had cheated death they were so enraptured with just yesterday. The Prince’s words offered me no comfort since I still had to live in this cursed place and nine months remained until the Green Man’s return. I wondered at that time would there be anything left on this patch of ground for him to challenge.

I had considered the first verse of the riddle solved, and now contemplated the second.

“All you hear is silence. All you feel is stone. With strangers you are welcome and with those you know, alone.”

I was now indeed very much alone. The only thing leading me to think otherwise was my sight, which I now knew I could not trust. I had watched my cousin vanish before my eyes, so I had the feeling long before I could put it into words that the people I were seeing were not real (which was the reason they had stopped speaking and acting like more than shadows). But once the rest of them were gone, how was I to survive? I could not find my horse, nor any real tools of value, and the food I did manage to scrounge tasted like it was part of the wood it had been sitting on.

I could not go on like this. The world I had known was falling apart. My belly ached and there was not a soul to give me company. I stood pacing in my room like a prisoner with my sword drawn. Once again I knew I had to act and recalling my cousin’s words I applied the Green Man’s line to whatever troubled me.

“All I see is false.” I recited, and closing my eyes I plunged the blade into the nearest object, a stone block sitting in the corner.

The sword went right through it and back out again as if it were made of air. I turned and struck at the wall similarly and the result was the same, its grey surface growing transparent around the blade like a mist. I ran down the corridor swiping everything I could find until I was surrounded in fog, and it still wasn’t enough just as the speed at which I had fought the King’s champion wasn’t enough. Letting my instincts take charge one last time I tossed my treasured sword away and it disappeared itself into the haze. I knelt and put my hands together as if in prayer, focusing myself to erase everything in sight with my mind. Then to include even what I did not see, my eyes closed.

When I awoke I was no longer kneeling in an upper hall of a fortress but on bare ground. It was gritty and hard against my skin. I was still in a mist, but as the wind began to clear it away I could see green hills and forest beyond. The castle of my uncle’s kingdom was gone without a trace, along with everything and everyone I had ever known. Now I would have to survive in the outside world, this time without anything but my hands and the cloth on my back, and I was now utterly alone.

The air was clear in a matter of minutes and an orange Sun glared down on me from a purple-tinted sky. I had never seen such a sun before. I quickly realized my predicament as I was completely exposed on a bare hill without even the shelter of a tree within ten minutes’ walk. I was now worse than a pauper, I was a defenseless beggar. Oh why did that green mongrel ever come into my life! What good was chivalry to me now that I had accepted his terms so eagerly? A knight without his sword? Without his kingdom and the King who had knighted him? I had led a contented life compared to this!

I had no idea what manner of people lived in this countryside. I had always understood they were peasantry and had even seen evidence of them passing in and out of the castle gate, but did that mean they would be gone as well? And what other inhabitants would there be? Wild men who survived off their own wits and estranged knights who had not seen their homelands in years? Servants of foreign kingdoms with their own peculiar laws and claim on this land? Murderers? Thieves? Magicians? I had always been told that in the wilderness a knight could expect to find an opponent or adventure on a daily basis, testing every facet of his courage, and that beyond our borders were places enchanted by necromancers or perhaps no conscious being at all but the owl and the twisting vine.

I ran pitifully for shade from the burning heat. Nothing that had ever made me think I was brave or strong remained, or so I thought. I trudged across naked earth and down muddy furrows meant for horses. My objective was the first tiny clump of trees (which I had ignored when I was out riding before) and turned out to be only a single oak whose base was dry and cracked and a few bushes. The branches were too sparse to offer much cover and there was no water, so I did not delay there long.

The view I had grown accustomed to was extensive, but there were no signs of human life at all. No farmers, no houses, no distant columns of smoke. I made my way down the same path I had intended the first time, which without my steed seemed far longer and more uneven. It took me a full day to reach the place I had stopped the first night. My throat was parched, my skin dusty and my legs ached.

It had not yet begun to grow dark as I went to sleep in the same hollow where I had first dreamt of the Green Man. But this time no dreams came, or none that I could remember, and I awoke with a fearful start sitting upright to find the entire night had come and gone without my knowing.

My skin accustomed to life within stone walls was becoming red, so I set off again for the stream I knew was in this direction. The rest of the plateau would be the longest trek I had ever made over open ground in my life. It was midway through when I didn’t think I would ever see a living soul again that I suddenly came upon an old peasant woman dragging a load too heavy to lift. I got down on one knee as if she were a queen.

“Please...” I said to her. “Can I have some water?”

She looked at me strangely. This was not one of the nameless wanderers I had seen earlier, but a real person with a face marked by innumerable years. She slowly put a hand into her raiment and pulled out a wooden bowl brimming with water.

I took it gratefully and drank the entire contents, her expression still one of puzzlement.

“Thank you.” I said, wiping my lips. “I am hoping you have some food as well?”

Again her wrinkled hand disappeared into her cloak and this time returned with a plate on which there was a roasted chicken leg still steaming!

“You are a witch!” I exclaimed, about to recoil when my stomach bade me go ahead and take it.

“If you like.” the old woman replied wearily. I held the meat to my mouth and took a man-sized bite before putting the plate down.

“Tell me,” I said in a better voice and with better spirits, “was there a keep standing there yesterday or has that hill always been empty?”

I pointed back in the direction I had come. She looked as if this was the most peculiar question in the world.

“There has never been a keep there.” she said finally, and at once continued on her way dragging her bundle.

“Wait!” I implored, standing in her path. “I am of noble blood but I can still do much work. Will you please take me to where you are going? I will carry your load.”

“No.” she responded quickly, moving on.

“Is there nothing I can do for you?”

“From what I can see there is nothing you can do for yourself.” she surprised me with her disdain. “But there is one question you can answer for me.”

“And what is that?”

“You said you come from a keep on that hill.” she said. “Since there is nothing there then where have you spent your life?”

She walked away unimpeded by me any longer. I looked slack-jawed at the ground trying to absorb this question. In a few moments when I lifted my head the woman was gone, even though there was no cover or shadow to be found.

I had to move on, so I nibbled what was left off the chicken bone she had given me and licked the last drops out of the bowl.

I followed the road for some time. I didn’t want to think about what the old woman had said. My world was gone but at least I had the knowledge that it had once existed, and I felt the need to defend this against anyone who doubted me. As I walked I began telling myself it was my responsibility to keep these memories alive, since I alone was the remnant of my kingdom and I now knew no one I encountered would believe me. So many fine friends now lost. I wasn’t sure if the Green Man had bewitched my homeland or just me, and I secretly hoped that once I had his riddle solved everything would return to normal (perhaps even finding that a year had not passed but only a moment, and that I had become a man with a mere thought). I had always known that on a quest it was the choices a man makes that fulfill the purpose, and I understood it was the Green Man from the midst of his spell who was presenting me with these decisions.

Unfortunately with the peasant woman I had made the wrong one. In hindsight I really had no idea of what the Green Man’s purpose was, but he couldn’t expect a knight to simply forget the place he had spent all his life. No one could. The more I thought the more my stomach ached as if the food I had been given were not real and the water had turned to dust making me sick.

I finally came to the break of forest where I had stalked the rabbit and found water the first time. The Sun would be going down soon. I was more exhausted than I had ever been in my life, but alert from the promise of drink and shade. I pushed my way through undergrowth to the brown stream and knelt to take my fill. I had not yet gotten my fingers wet when I stopped and saw a reflection from the other side, leaping away in the ripples as I disturbed the surface. It was the same brown hare that had survived the arrow I put through its body.

I rose slowly, no longer the equipped hunter but like a wolf, somehow hopeful that catching it with my bare hands might be worth trying. My eyes were fixed on the brush where it had disappeared. I picked up a rock that lay at my feet and crept at a snail’s pace to a narrow place I could step over. When I crossed to the other side I immediately had my prey in sight just two or three paces away. It hopped to the edge of the break where there appeared to be a clearing.

The animal was so close and yet I knew it could outrun me in an instant, my mouth watering although I had just realized I had no way of making a fire to cook it. This made me doubt further, since I had already killed it once with a solid shot and seemed incapable of killing anything or anyone these days. What led me to believe I could crush it with this rock? Still, I pushed through the shrubbery after it.

I blinked in the light of the clearing and then stood there trying to comprehend the vision spread out before me. Beyond the herbage there was nothing, absolutely nothing as far as the eye could see. I stood at the edge of a barren wasteland with not a single living thing across it nor any object larger than a speck of brown dust. The Sun was a huge red-orange sphere and the sky around it was purple fading to black on the horizon. There was a wind blowing tendrils of dust before me. I had never dreamt of a place so strange as this.

Was my kingdom so small that nothing at all existed in the world beyond my view from the castle window? I looked back to see exactly where the greenery ended and it was gone! I turned swiftly, bare ground surrounding me in every direction. Nothing I had seen so far had prepared me to be in the midst of this nightmare.

The Sun glared at me with no hope of escape from its crimson stare nor my own terrible misfortune. The rabbit was sitting upright a short distance away looking at me, oblivious to my plight. My despair was now complete, it was all that remained, and I had not yet fully realized it. I cannot relate to you the agony of a few seconds spent knowing that you are completely alone.

“But you are not alone.” a man’s voice suddenly rang out.

I turned back and my head jerked up to see the tiny hare had been replaced by a fully-grown and armored man on a steed towering over me.

I backed away from him so quickly I nearly stumbled. His mount retreated slightly then returned to its footing with instruction from the reigns. He looked at me with the same peculiar expression as the old woman, as if he were simply leading his horse to water and I was the strangest thing he had ever come across.

“Are you going to hurl that rock at me?” he asked curiously.

I looked at the stone in my outstretched fist and immediately dropped it, wiping my hand on my side.

The man was a foreigner with bronze skin and remarkable armor with crossed plates bolted to dark leather. He was thin but muscular like me and had black hair tied in knots that disappeared into his collar. The white steed was similarly adorned with thick leather straps and bronze studs. The animal wanted to move on, but he controlled it like an expert as he waited for me to speak.

“I thought you were a hare.” I said stupidly.

He gave an earnest laugh.

“That would explain why you shot at me with an arrow the first time I saw you.” he replied.

I was too confused to respond but he was patient while I collected my thoughts.

“Listen,” I said, “I know I don’t look it, but I am a knight. I have lost my kingdom.”

The stranger glanced with eyebrows raised in amusement at the desolation around us.

“And where did you last see it?” he mocked me.

“I am telling the truth!” I vented my frustration loudly.

“You defend your homeland as if with a sword.” he remarked after a pause. “But I see that your sword is gone as well.”

“My memories are sacred to me.” I attempted to reason. “A knight upholds what is true.”

“True eh?” he questioned me. “In that case can you remember your father’s name?"

I was unprepared for anything at this point but least of all a question like this.

“My father?” I repeated confusedly.

“And how long has your kingdom existed? What stories can you tell me of the battles in which it was founded?”

I looked at the ground. “Tell him!” my brain implored, but the harder I tried to think back the more vague and unreal my thoughts became. I again felt like I was waking from a dream and forgetting it quickly.

“While you ponder, consider this.” the man continued as if his time were precious. “How can you be a knight if there was no King to dub you, and for that matter no father to name you? If the place you come from never existed then who are you? And where is it you have been all this time?”

“I don’t know.” I finally admitted, my eyes moist. “But I want this nightmare to end.”

The Sun began to lower itself at a rate I could make out and the wind had increased.

“So you are in a nightmare, are you?” the stranger said the first thing that indicated a correct answer.

His voice seemed hollow, my hair was blowing in my face and the sky became increasingly dark and twisted. I was afraid.

“I have lived in a dream!” I shouted over the noise. “I am asleep!”

The dust roared and the man’s steed reared up on its hind legs, its mane coursing.

“Are you the same traveler I saw before in the castle?” I asked suddenly.

“No.” he responded.

He turned and directed the horse away from me into the storm. It seemed to me there was no longer any distinction between the sky and the ground, mixed patches of color flying about me and the darkness ever increasing.

“I want to wake!” I exclaimed, holding my arms close from the bitter cold.

A whirlwind surrounded me with jeweled shadows blending together like liquid. My skin felt like it was being stripped of its substance until I looked down and saw that my body itself had begun to fade. Immediately I thought, "When my physical form is gone what will be left? My soul?". I had never considered such things and why in God's name I pondered them now I had no knowing. I should have been fighting for my life, or my sanity if that is all that remained, showing some kind of appreciation for my plight. I felt that I had lost all control, and then inexplicably, I found it again.

There were blurred faces looking at me from all sides, faces of people I had known in my life and yet I was inept to even think of their names. And in the midst of all this the huge disembodied head of the Green Man grinned at me, his eyes like torches and a nimbus of writhing snakes his crown.

"And what plight would that be?" his voice tympanied in my senses like the hammering of iron. "Will you still take a stand now that there is no ground?"

"Let me wake!" I implored him from the depths of my mind.

As if by my command, and not from the words but the desire, I did have the feeling that I was in control of what I saw. I had wanted to confront the source of the spell and all its woes, find him waiting at the end of my journey and vanquish him, but this was not the truth and it was only myself that was mocking me. And in fact I began to feel not frustrated by fear, but weary of this impossible exercise. So in this moment I passed into a calmness in which I decided to stay until I could feel comfort and refuge again.

There was a light shining in my face more piercing than any I had ever seen. It stung my eyes as I awoke coughing stale wind from my chest, and uncurled from a strange gnarled position on a hard surface. I was too weak to stand or even speak. It took me a few minutes to see clearly and fully discover my range of motion. I looked up and saw a brown escarpment of earth with a peasant house on the upper side and the Sun rising from behind it. There was a chill in the morning air and the glint of gnats and dust floating around me. All manner of farming tools and animals were about and I stared at these ordinary things like a child with my mouth hanging open.

The Green Man

I attempted to get up with as little thought as a man would normally employ and there was a pain in my joints, then I looked down and was astounded at the condition of myself. My arm was as pale as linen and had as little flesh upon it as from a month of starvation. I could fit the fingers of my hand around it above the elbow. As I contemplated this a figure appeared from the shadow of the house and approached me.

I was laying on some kind of wooden contraption like a table with a post at both ends and an iron chain that allowed it to swing from side to side. The blankets that had covered me were now discarded on the ground from my convulsions. A small, elderly man with sparse hair came quickly toward me with a look of delight on his face. I had no idea who he was or what he wanted of me.

"Saints be praised..." he whispered and grasped me in his arms. I reacted as if I knew him and the warmth of his touch put me at ease having gone without the company of a human soul for what seemed like ages.

"You were looking better so we thought to give you some air." he said to me.

"Where..." I attempted to speak, my voice worn and frayed as if from screaming. "Could you please tell me where I am? And do I know you?"

"This is your home." he replied immediately. "You are our son."

I stared at his homely features in disbelief and put a hand through my hair.

"You are my father?" I asked him strangely.

"No." he said. "You were abandoned when you were newly born because you were such a poorly child. We have cared for you these sixteen years and until this day you have not once looked up at me, although you have sometimes said things in your sleep we did not understand. We tried everything we could devise to rouse you, eventually giving up. Various travelers who passed here on occasion have tried speaking to you, but only in the past month have you uttered anything in reply."

"I have spent my entire life asleep?" I responded with pause, but I knew it was the truth.

Looking back now I can very well say every sensation of that hour was more real than anything I thought I had experienced before, but it was new to me then. The climate wasn't particularly comfortable, the smell in the air wasn't exactly palatable and this patch of ground was brown and destitute, but I had reason to be glad. The old man helped me into an upright position and I planted my clenched feet unsurely on the ground. He waited patiently beside me while my faculties returned.

"Then who was the Green Man?" I asked curiously. "Did I imagine him?"

"Green man?" my custodian repeated, scratching his curly head. "Oh you mean the knight!"

"Yes, the knight." I said in amazement.

He sat down on a stool as if being lower to the ground helped him collect his memory.

"About four months past a man stopped here for the night on his way to the fighting lands." he related. "As he dined at our meager table he wiled us with tales of foreign wars and other such things I've never heard the like. Since your bed is right there in the main room he saw you and took pity, and that evening he sat and told you the story of Sir Gawain. Now I've known the tale since I was a lad, but this man had such a strong and intent manner about him when he spoke it seemed to me he was giving out ideas with a purpose. Damned if I understood, but we thanked him and he went his way. He is due to come back this way when the weather turns again."

I had not the strength to ingest all this, that would take some time. But all things considered my recuperation would be relatively swift for someone whose knowledge of life had only come from half-heard voices and things glimpsed through unconscious eyes. This knowledge was still with me, albeit a fanciful version of the world just as my contrived noble life had been. It was my one keepsake, as even the memory of the dream beyond this account has utterly faded. I had my mind, my speech and the desire to strengthen myself even if I had to start again from nothing. The old man led me carefully to the house one slow step at a time, to meet his mate and their natural children where I would learn to feed and clothe myself and someday learn to fight.

My eagerness to improve myself surprised my caretakers by the hours and diligence I devoted to it, inspired by the chivalry of a dream. I was true to form as if I had actually been brought up this way, which was not altogether untrue. No one in the tiny village had ever trained to be a knight or so they told me. I was like a freak of nature, far more than during my slumber people came to meet the youth raised by stories, and later would come to challenge me. I spent eight hours a day simply lifting things or walking a greater distance until I was well enough to perform any normal task of a peasant youth. Then I began training to fight, carving primitive arrows and targets for myself. Others my age would come to watch me practice and offer their own suggestions and tools from their sport-fighting and defense against farm predators.

When my muscles were lean and my spirit ready I left home to appeal for a commission from the local lord. He was a man troubled by rash conflicts at his borders and civic feuds within his own house, so he quickly agreed and sent me off to join a patrol in the direction of the fighting lands. I was given the implements I would barter many times through word and deed for that which I have now. This armor came from a battle-weary spy I engaged in single combat in the wilderness. My horse I traded since there are times in a knight's life when a mount speeds his journey greatly and times when it slows him down.

Since the time I first opened my eyes to this world eight months have passed. Every day is an adventure when you have to hunt for food and defend your own from scavengers both native and displaced by war. I have seen skirmishes and trod battle-plains inked in blood and littered with rusted metal. I have encountered men both admirable and despicable and a few beyond my words to define. I have no kin, so the life I have lived so far is very much the roving path of the knight I've always wished to be.

The world is far different than I imagined, and I am certainly not Gawain. The lines between chivalry and cowardice are not as finely drawn as in my dream. Valor often goes unnoticed, I have seen men of pure blood with less conscience than a thief and squabbles between men in which I did not surely know which was my kinsman. But this is finally past as every knight takes his season before adopting the sword and shield again. Now I look forward to communion and the repayment of an old debt.

I don't know what the Green Man will say or do when he sees me, but I hope he will be pleased. I long to hear of the things he has seen and done in his life. I am still awed by the cleverness in which he pulled me from the shadows, instilling in me the will to fight my affliction. Somehow he knew what I needed to hear, the goal of a knightly quest his device. The embers of the fire reflect my desire to see him, and the sparks rise toward the roof of the trees as a herald. I have undone every tempered thing that binds me and laid my sword to rest beside the bedcloth. Here I will wait until morning when I expect, and exalt, his return.