The Death of Gawaine
by Ruth Berman
©1985; originally appeared in Alpha Adventures
used here by permission of the author
The sun was very bright that day. The dirt on the plain stretching back from the cliffs was muddy with blood, and the earth sparkled where the light hit the wet spots. The gulls came wheeling in from the sea to pick at the corpses, and there were not men enough to tend the sick and keep the birds off the dead.
The cliffs, too, shone in the light, and the sea was joyous. The boat drawn up on the beach rocked slowly as the waves danced against the end in the water, and Gawaine put up his hand to shield his eyes. His forehead was sticky with blood, and it was hard to think through the pain. His hair and beard were light, almost shining in the sun, except where drying blood matted them.
The rocking of the boat turned him to the sun, and away, to the sun, and away.
Even Arthur had left. Bury the dead, and nursing the wounded, left little time to watch with the dying.
Gawaine could remember the blow that had fallen on the scar Lancelot had given him. That much was clear. But he did not know how he had come to the boat, and Arthur had not been able to tell him. Someone must have carried him down from the cliff. Unless a spell had done it . There were mysterious boats to be seen in the world sometimes, and strange things happened around them. but it was usually saints who rode them, and Gawaine was, conspicuously, not a saint. And yet here he was. “The boat,” said Gawaine. “The boat ”
“No,” said Ragnall.
He tried to turn and lift his head, to look into the Channel where he heard her voice, but could not. “My lady,” he said, shaping the words with his lips, for the little breath that was in him would not serve for a voice.
Ragnall walked out of the sea and stood beside him, her hands steadying the gunwale of the boat so that its rocking ceased. Her robes were a clear red, and they were dry. “My dearest lord,” she said, “this boat was not sent for you.” She took ointments from her belt and began to cleanse his wounds. He had told Arthur’s leeches to go tend those they could help, but it was not in his power to order Ragnall away.
The pain weighting down his head eased a little, and he tried to look about him, as much as his weakness would allow.
Ragnall was fair to see in that brightness. Her dark hair fell from her red cap far down her back. Her skin shone, reflecting the light, but her cheeks were pale. The boat, too, was beautiful in its way, made of a dark wood polished smooth as a sea pebble. Its lines were not broken anywhere by mast, oars, rudder, or slots where they might go.
“This is no mortal ship, my lady,” said Gawaine. “May I know for whom it was sent?”
“For your uncle.”
Gawaine tried to look to the top of the cliffs, but even if his eyes had been able to see details over the brightness of the chalk, he was too close to the foot to see any distance inland past the edge of the cliff. “Is it death?” He managed to turn his eyes toward her. “Are you – ?”
“I am not dead,” she said, and touched his hand for him to feel the warmth, but he could not feel it, for the fever was in him. “I spent one night beneath the hill, and time turned against me there. But you should have known those of my country do not die.”
“I thought if you were in life you would have returned to me.” He smiled suddenly. “And so you have returned, my lady,” he said. “Ill met, but welcome.”
She bent to kiss him, and they remained so for a time which neither could have measured. It seemed forever in the doing, but afterwards it seemed a moment, like time beneath the hills.
But she released him at last, feeling the weakness grow in him, and said, “I could curse your uncle, for he has brought you to this war.”
“No,” said Gawaine, “I brought Arthur here. I forced him over the sea, to revenge my brothers’ deaths on Lancelot–at least I thought so. But perhaps I fought my friend because he was greater than I was. That is why Mordred is fighting Arthur now, after all. I set the boy the example, and so we have run pelting out of my war into his.”
“Mordred is your half-brother, my lord, not your brother,” said Ragnall. “You may have some things in common, but, I think, not that.”
“Perhaps not. At least I have been true to the king and fought with him to his last battle.”
Ragnall’s hands shook, and the boat rocked once in the pressure of the wave before she steadied it.
Gawaine cried out, his voice answering to his grief. But then he mastered it and said, again in a whisper, “Not even that? But if this boat is for him–”
“It waits for him. He must fight one battle yet before he goes to my country to wait for Britain’s need.”
Gawaine sighted, and his face was wistful. “When we married I gave you the mastery, for that is what women desire, but I do not think that gives you the power to take me to the undying lands.”
“No. In your courtesy, you gave me the mastery of my own self, not of yours–and even in my country we cannot give folk mastery over the gods or the god, whichever you choose to trust.”
“I cannot trust to that, my lady. I was given sight of my aims when I failed to win the grail. But I will hope as I may.” Gawaine shifted slightly, and the sleek wood seemed to bend to him, to give his body what comfort it could. “My lady, if the boat is not for me, why am I here? It is by your grace, I think.”
Ragnall hesitated, but when she spoke her voice was even. “To keep the gulls away from your body.”
Gawaine smiled again. “Thank you, Ragnall. I am vain enough to be grateful.”
“I think not, my lord. It is your courtesy to say so.” His smile became a laugh, but it was a laugh so like to weeping that Ragnall stared at him, her face troubled. She stroked the yellow beard, damp where she had cleaned it. “What is it, my lord?”
He waited till his breathing evened again. “Only vanity. I was called the most courteous of knights, and I think I was-and it was all I was. Do you know what courtesy is, Madame? It is the mask to hide the absence of all else.”
“You know better than that, my lord. If you do not, those who know you know better.”
“And when we are all dead, no one will know better,” said Gawaine. “I shall be the knight of all ceremony-light of hair, and heart, and mind, and soul.”
“No. I will remember,” said Ragnall.
He looked into her face and smiled a third time. A little color came into her face, but then his mouth relaxed suddenly, and Ragnall began to weep.
The setting sun blazed in his open eyes, and he did not blink. Ragnall let go of the gunwale, and reached in to embrace him, letting the waves rock them both at will. Her tears fell on him, and she wept until she could not breathe. She stopped then, wiped her nose with her hand, and washed the hand in the sea. Then she closed his eyes and left him there.
Ragnall walked along the shingles of the beach. The stones were sharp through the scarlet slippers on her feet. Where the cliffs broke and a narrow valley sloped down to the sea she turned inland and walked towards the north in the twilight. She stopped once as she passed unseen through Arthur’s camp, and spoke to Yvain. “Your cousin is dead. Go north to Lothian, and tell King Lot’s council to put the land in order and search for an heir. Arthur does not need you now.” She went on before he could answer her, and passed unseen over the torn earth between the camps and through Mordred’s soldiers.
Beyond Mordred’s camp she searched for a hill with an entrance to it, and there, as she expected, she found Morgan standing. Morgan shrank back from her, with the unwilled quickness of disgust, and Ragnall knew that she had lost her beauty. She looked down at her hands. They were wrinkled, and the fingers were crooked, and bone thin between the knuckles. She could guess what her face must be. She looked at Morgan. Like Gawaine and Arthur and others of that family, Morgan was bright-haired and fair to see. She wore robes of green silk and stood before the hill, as patient as the grass. “Good evening, Morgan,” the old woman said. “You must wait a while yet.”
“So my nephew is dead? I am sorry for it. What can I do to release you?”
“From this?” Ragnall touched her face and let her hand fall again. “I was beautiful through my lord’s courtesy. When such courtesy is in the world again, I shall be beautiful again. But my lord will not be there then. Can you release me from life?”
“No,” said Morgan.
Ragnall nodded, and walked on through the gathering darkness, turning west, towards Merlin’s Dance. The young moon was now visible in that part of the sky, and she could see well enough by it. She could occupy some centuries singing songs to keep the nightmare off the buried sorcerer. When he slept peacefully there would be other work to do, outside the undying lands.
©1985; originally appeared in Alpha Adventures