Sunday, December 5, 2010

Septentria and the Green Man

Colyne Stewart, AS XXXVII

Based on the medieval Christmas tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Dedicated to Berend van der Eych, Domhnail Galbraith and Gunnar Truthsinger.

I. The Green Man

The fire in the hearth flared, throwing shadows upon the walls of the grand hall. At one end sat the mighty thegn, resplendent in crimson tunic and fur cape. At his side sat a woman with whom he had ruled his lands for many passings of the moon. Together they had opened their hall to all in their lands to celebrate the Yule. Boughs of evergreen hung from the walls, and the jul log burned in the hearth.

Sitting at long tables arranged about the hall sat men and women from all the cantons of the thegn’s lands. Artisans, warriors, bards, chroniclers, scribes, and more were the folk of Septentria. He looked at them with pride while they laughed, ate and drank.

The door at the end of the hall blew open, admitting a blast of chill air and a flurry of snow. Through the portal strode a tall man dressed in chain mail and fur. His face was obscured behind the ornately decorated visor of his helm, though his bristly brown beard was plain to see. The tunic under his mail was bright green, and he wore sprigs of holly on his belt.

The thegn’s castellan sprang to his feet and approached the stranger, wishing him welcome. The man pushed the castellan aside and strode towards the head table. The thegn drained his horn and set it down on the tabletop as the green-clad stranger approached.

“A good Yule to you,” said the thegn, rising. The stranger ignored his words and turned to address those assembled in the hall.

“I have come to challenge those of the bear lands to duel,” he bellowed.

Enraged at this lack of respect towards the thegn, Gunnarr, called the Truthsinger, sprang to his feet. “How dare you insult the thegn so!” he cried.

“Hold your tongue, skald,” responded the green man. “Or you shall loose it.”

Gunnarr made to loosen the axe from his belt but a wave of the thegn’s hand halted him.

“I have heard much of the courage of those who dwell in these lands,” continued the stranger, “and I would pit myself against three of you in a contest. Who amongst you is brave enough to challenge me?”

The courts of the thegn were filled with brave fighters, but many found their courage lessened when looking at the giant stranger with his bulging arms, thick legs and broad back.

Finally, Gunnarr said, “I would be one of those three.” So saying he clambered around a table to stand before the stranger.

“As will I,” said Berend van der Eych, knife maker and some times executioner. He came and stood by the bard’s side.

“I will be the third,” said Domhnail Galbraith, fighter and artisan. She stood between the two taller men, the raven on her tunic black as the night.

“You three?” laughed the giant. “I had come looking for a challenge! But very well, if these are the best your lands can offer, I will gladly best you all.”

Rankling at the stranger’s taunts, Gunnarr said, “What manner is this challenge?”

“Why, to kill me,” laughed the green man. “I offer each of you a free stroke of your blades. If I still survive then in one year’s time you must all seek me out and allow me a free stroke of my blade against each of you. Do you accept this challenge? If so you must all give oath that you will follow its conditions.”

The three thought the rules odd, but agreed to the contest.

“Very well,” rumbled the giant, spreading his arms and legs, “do your worst.”

The three looked at each other and Gunnarr stepped to the fore gripping his axe. With a well-placed throw he cleaved the giant’s arm from his body.

“Oh, very good,” said the stranger. “Next.”

Pulling her sword, Domhnail strode forward and lopped the giant’s right leg off.

Still standing, the green man nodded towards Berend. Obliging, Berend swung his sax and the stranger’s head hit the floor. A hush fell over the room as everyone waited for the body to topple. However, it remained on its feet and laughter began to issue from the decapitated head. Leaning forward, the giant collected its body parts and stuck them back on.

He walked to the door, paused, and turned.

“Remember, keep your oaths. One year.”

With that he walked outside and was lost in the snow.

The rest of the evening was subdued, and guests quietly slipped away until the three were left alone with the thegn. Gunnarr, Berend and Domhnail all dropped to their knee and pledged that they would find the green man and finish the contest. The thegn was saddened, for he knew that none of them would survive a sword blow from the giant, but he bide them good luck and left the hall.

“So,” said Berend, “what shall we do now?”

“I suggest we three go off in different directions in search of this rogue,” answered Domhnail. “We will learn all we can and meet in the fall. Hopefully we will have learned of the green man’s location and we can meet him together next Yule.”

To this plan the others agreed. Quickly packing traveling bags they set out: Berend to the north, Domhnail to the west and Gunnar to the east.

II. Mumming

For months Berend wandered through the farthest reaches of Ealdormere, past Flaming Sky, past the ruins of Owlshaven. In the wide expanses of forest he encountered only the occasional hill man until finally one day he came across a small cabin of rough-hewn stone. He approached, in the hopes of begging shelter for the night, and found there were no doors or windows. Instead there was a small ledge under a thin gap being no more then a hand span in height. As he got closer he noticed a wooden tray on the ground under the opening and some spoiled food.

There was movement inside the structure and a voice called, “Who is there?”

“My name is Lord Berend van der Eych,” he said coming closer. “And I am on a quest to find a man of green. Who may you be?”

“I am Helysoune, the anchoress, my Lord,” she replied. “I am living in isolation to contemplate the universe and my place within it.”

“A worthy matter on which to dwell,” said Berend, “but pray, how do you live? On what do you eat?”

“There is a woodsman who lives nearby,” answered Helysoune, “who agreed to bring me food and haul my night soil away. However, when last he came he was taken by strange men in masks, I know not where.”

“I cannot leave you trapped in that building with no means to feed yourself, but nor can I quit my quest. I will find this woodsman and free him from his captors so he may care for you again.”

“Good Lord I thank thee,” said Helysoune.

With that Berend looked for tracks in the mud, for it was now the spring thaw in the northlands. He found many animal tracks, but only a few made by men. They all lead towards a small hill to the east. Eagerly he followed them.

Shortly he found himself atop the hill facing a strange scene. A large box sat on the ground, upon which perched a man dressed in tattered clothes wearing a feathered mask. Behind him stood a tall man dressed in a military uniform with a large drooping moustache. Beside him lounged a woman wearing a dragon mask and dressed in bright green clothes. Berend thought he could hear faint sounds of movement within the box and guessed the woodsman was being kept within it.

“My Lords, my Lady,” he said, bowing, “Pray tell, I am in search of a local woodsman, and was wondering if you had seen such an individual.”

The man in the feathered mask nodded.

“Can you tell me where he may be?”

This time the man shook his head.

“I see,” said Berend. “And may I see what is within that box upon which you sit?”

The mustached man placed himself between Berend and the box.

“My Lords,” said Berend, “If you do not let the woodsman go, the anchoress Helysoune will starve.”

In answer the man pulled free a curved sword. These images, the strange clothes and masks, the sword, the moustache, suddenly called something to Berend’s mind. He had once seen mummers performing at Yule, and these three looked like characters from that play. In fact, the man before him resembled the Turkish Knight, he who must be defeated for spring to return.

Grimly, Berend drew his own blade. “It seems we must join in battle. Let us then be about it.”

With a clash of steel they met. Their swords flashed as they danced about the box, the other two mummers silently observing. The battle was fierce, and Berend found the Turkish Knight to be a most worthy foe. Finally he struck a telling blow and the Knight fell to the ground.

The feathered man and the dragon-woman came to the Knight’s side and raised him from the mud. Without a word they all turned and walked away.

Opening the wooden box, Berend did indeed find the woodsman. Helping the fellow to his feet, Berend took him back to Helysoune. The anchoress was most pleased with Berend, and told him she had heard of his quest for the green man, and knew where he could be found.

“He will actually seek you out, back in the hall of your thegn,” she said. “There he will strike you with his blade, but if your heart is full of compassion, the blow will be as from a twig and you will be spared.”

Thanking the anchoress, Berend set off for home.

III. Mother Holle

Long had Domhnail searched in vain for signs of the green man in the lands of the Ram. No one there had heard of him, and she was close to despair. Finally she met a dwarf who told her of a wise woman who dwelled deep in the woods who was known as Mother Holle. The dwarf felt sure that Holle would know of this green man.

Setting out immediately, Domhnail searched through the wood and eventually came across a strange abode. Below a large oak tree there was a small hut of wood, with a grass roof. Beside the hut there was a large kennel, and dogs lounged about. A sled sat to one side.

Approaching, Domhnail kept her eyes on the dogs, but the beasts only regarded her lazily. As she neared the door, an old woman wearing a green robe stepped outside. She appraised the small woman who stood before her, sword and horn at her hips. Finally, the old woman said, “You then are Domhnail Galbraith, come for word of the green man?”

“I am, good woman,” responded Domhnail. “Are you the one known as Mother Holle?”

“Indeed,” was the answer. “It is true that I have the knowledge you require, that you know you need, and that which you do not know you need.”

“Will you share it with me?”

Holle pursed her lips. “Perhaps. First I must know, that horn you wear, did you craft it?”

“I did.” Domhnail unslung it and held it up for Holle to see. “Many hours went into its construction. The figures carved upon it are a history of my house.”

Mother Holle was openly impressed. “It is a magnificent piece,” she said, her eyes flicking from emerald to ruby to topaz where they glinted on the horn. “It must be worth a great deal, both in monetary worth and in personal worth.”

“Yes,” agreed Domhnail. “It was a labour of love.”

“Well, said Holle straightening, “I will tell you what you need to know if you will trade me your horn for it.”

For a moment Domhnail stood dumbfounded and seemed ready to refuse. Then she thought of Gunnar and Berend. If they did not find out the giant’s whereabouts, and she had refused to pay for that knowledge, it was probable that all three of them would die. Was the horn worth the lives of those two gentles?

“Very well,” she said, handing over the horn, “I will give it to you.”

Taking the horn, Holle said, “My thanks, raven daughter. My own horn has a hole, and I will use this one well. Know then that the green man will seek for you at the thegn’s hall this Yule. Face him there. When he strikes you, if your heart is full of generosity, you will prevail.”

After thanking the woman and patting the dogs on the head, Domhnail began the long trek back.

IV. The Sun Boar

In Ben Dunfirth, Gunnarr spent months seeking clues as to the giant’s whereabouts. His travels eventually led him to a bridge spanning a wide brook. As he set foot upon it a boar, one of the legendary great boars, stepped out of the woods on the far side. The boar was of immense size, looking big enough for a full-grown man to ride it as he would a horse. Its hair was red and orange and its tusks seemed to have a golden glow.

As it sat where the bridge met the land, it spoke. “Greetings, quester. Come you to my lands seeking knowledge or gain?”

“Knowledge,” said Gunnarr. “Though sometimes knowledge is gain.”

The boar nodded. “Very true. My name is Gulli-burstan, and I may have the knowledge you seek. Tell me what you need to know.”

“I seek the location of a giant green man, who I and two others must face by year’s end.”

“Ah, I know of him,” said Gulli-burstan. “I can tell you where he can be found.” Looking at the axe on Gunnarr’s belt he asked, “Are you skilled with that weapon?”

“I have some skill, yes,” replied Gunnar.

“Then I propose a contest. Look you at this tree behind me. Do you see the large crabapple on its bough?”

Gunnarr nodded.

“Then if you can hit that apple within three seconds of my calling for you to throw, I will tell you what you need to know. If you miss you will die. Do you accept?”

“I agree to your terms,” said Gunnarr freeing his axe.

“Then…throw!” bellowed the boar as it suddenly charged across the bridge. Gunnarr had less than a second to let his axe fly before the boar was upon him. He threw himself to one side, narrowly avoiding the pounding hooves of the great beast. He came to his feet to find the boar sitting calmly in the grass regarding him. Looking over at the tree he saw that his strike had been true, and the apple lay cleaved in twain.

“Very good,” said Gulli-burstan. “Return home and the green man will find you in your thegn’s hall at Yule. Know also that if your heart is full of courage when the blow lands, you will survive.” Hefting his bulk, Gulli-burstan trotted off into the woods.

V. Completion of the Contest

The three companions met again that autumn and told each other of what had befallen them. Until the snow began to fall they prepared themselves to face the giant’s blade.

Upon the appointed day the populace of Septentria gathered to see the contest concluded. The thegn and the baroness stood at the side of Gunnarr, Berend and Domhnail while those three worthy gentles were wished well by all in attendance. Finally, the doors swung open and the giant entered the hall. He smiled when he saw the three standing at the head of the hall.

“Very good,” he said, “so you knew I would come to you here. Come then, let us finish our game.”

Silently, Berend, Domhnail and Gunnar lined up before him. The giant pulled a large sword from a sheath strapped to his back and raised it over his head. Those watching held their breath as he brought it crashing down upon Berend’s exposed neck. At the last second the sword’s momentum stopped, the blade resting on Berend’s skin.

“You are a compassionate man,” said the giant. “You did stop to help another with no thought to reward. I am loath to harm such a man as you.”

So saying, the green man moved to Domhnail. He brought his sword flashing down but again the blade did not bite flesh.

“And you are a generous soul,” he said. “Giving away that which you did labour over long. I could not bring myself to harm a woman such as you.”

He then moved to Gunnarr and the act was repeated for a third time. With the sword sitting on Gunnar’s neck, the green man said, “And you do have great courage, to face down Gulli-burstan’s charge and still hit your target. I can not harm such a one as you either.”

Turning to face the thegn and the baroness, the giant said, “When I did enter this hall this Yule past, I did say that these three were no challenge to me, but know that they have bested me! Blessed is this land to produce sons and daughters such as these!”

The giant then kneeled before the thegn and baroness and they received his fealty. For the rest of that Yule Berend, Domhnail and Gunnar were treated as royalty, for they were all truly noble of heart and spirit.

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