Robed in midnight, and deeply veiled once more, I brave the shuddering rage of wind and the gusting grief of snow. Masks? Oh, we are all masked one way or another, are we not? I have adopted the Fox mask, crafted for me so long ago by an admirer (a man who, perhaps, had more of the scrying ability in his soul than I then realised): It hides the worst of me, whilst allowing clear sight of all who approach.
Echoes from the past twelve-month taunt and haunt: The meaty crunch as crushing axe head made contact with green neck. The bright fountain of arterial blood and the raw stump flaps left behind. The heaving horror of that head hefted, though hewn, and held under the heavy arm of the monstrous Green Knight. Ladies swooning. Battle-hardened men blanching. The cygnhanedd of cruelty carved in bloody balance on blank pages.
And yet, the blow had been struck by the Queen’s Champion, that most chivalrous of all the King’s knights, Sir Gawain himself. The eldest of the Orkney Brood, he was, and, despite his status as Royal Nephew and presumed heir, this had caused ripples of unease when first he came to Court. No good, it was said, would come of any mating between King Lot of Orkney and the Lady Morgause: Malice and ambition conjoined, and whispers of things far darker and more secret.
Blood, they say, will out – and certainly the black malevolence has touched Agravaine, a man born in a caul of bitterness, and, though Gaheris and Gareth stand clear of obvious stain, the latter’s hero-worship of Sir Lancelot may yet turn out to be the family’s Achilles’ Heel.
Gawain, I feel, is true: Loyal, brave and honest, though his reputation amongst the ladies, his need to prove that he epitomises the Code of Chivalry, could attract the mischief, and mayhem, of the Enchantress…
A blow for a blow. That was the agreement. That triggered the sinister storm of laughter which rocked the headless body, and caused a few more scarlet blood-petals to bloom across the Table Round.
And now? Now the seasons have marched their annual circle, and the Year and a Day approaches ever-faster.
And I, Lady Ragnell, my heart as securely masked as my face, must needs battle the freezing conditions, the starving animals in need of prey, the spies from the camp of She who must not be named, in order to fulfil my part in the prophecy.
I learned early and I learned well. That man was the ultimate prize, my desirability my only bargaining tool. I sought love with all the greed an alchemist uses to transmit base matter into gold – and, with ruthless stupidity, considered that any price was worth paying to ‘buy’ that elusive ‘metal’. My coin was my own body, and I paid in high denominations through the subtle use of tongue, the versatile ‘lending’ of orifices to those sated by more maidenly lovers.
I did not consider I deserved love unless my body, or the gifts of a generous heart, pleased. I was a barterable commodity.
It took me too long to see that the pursuit of the hart, and of the heart, is worthless without self-respect and sovereignty. That conditional love, love as a reward for good service and erotic acts, is not worth the winning.
As the snow deepens and thickens, as the wind howls, like a wolf ripping at my skin, I ponder upon my own cursed transformation – and wonder if, perhaps, it had been more carefully designed for me than I realised at the time. For I can see now that I had lessons to learn – and was avoiding them. That an unattractive appearance has given me insight which, when effortlessly beautiful, I lacked. For all their rheum and lack of pleasing shape, my eyes see far more clearly now than they did in my previous incarnation.
I cannot tell you what Fox ‘told’ me in his warm noises and relaxed exhalations in the short time he ‘spoke’ to me because such knowing by-passes the conscious mind and operates limbs, senses, instinct. All I can say is that my cloth-and-bark-bound feet, arthritic toes spasming painfully, have been led to this path between oak trees cloaked in white, and lesser arboreal deities shivering in their thin winter clothing.
Such is the keening of wind-chaos, the ghostly shapes of tree and bush, the scurryings of woodland creatures that, initially, the Being before me could be a mighty oak which has, by some strange miracle, shaken off the powdery weight of snow.
Green, it is, twined with leaves and twigs, smelling of the essence of forest and seeming to shout the promise of spring from its ambivalent pores. Yet it holds a staff, carved with runes, in a large hand – and the cloak, though stitched and embroidered to blend in with the landscape, is wrought by human hands. A man, then, for no woman would venture this deep into the Enchanted Forest alone – and no woman, outside the realm of Faery, has ever reached a height in excess of six feet.
I cannot see the face, for the man is masked as securely as I am. We are neither of us who we seem – but he does not know that about me! He sees…a Crone. I see…a Mystery.
Yet I sense a Quest.
He throws me all the words my looks ‘attract’: hag, witch, foul baggage, skull; he is rough-spoken with desperation and, I think, an odd kind of fear. His mask does not hide him as well as he thinks, however: Like most women, I am proficient at reading the books men do not wish us to see, or secretly wish us to tease into prominence – and this one, this tall Tree-Man, wants, most urgently, to know what it is women desire above all else.
As is true of so many men, the ghastly enticement of the occult, the tingle of any kind of forbidden knowledge or psychic power, sets up a chain-reaction of longing for the answer – whatever the cost!
My terms are blunt and unequivocal: In return for the answer, he must pledge himself to me, take my hand in marriage and…
(…end the curse: Oh, Goddess, please let him choose wisely and free me from the enchantment. This has happened so many times before, and my erstwhile ‘suitors’ have fled, leaving me alone and mourning)
…at this point, faced with such starkness (My hand or Death), this man’s basic nature is wrung from him and, taking my hand with gentle courtesy, he calls me ‘Fair Maid’ as if I were pleasing in the eyes of God and Man.
I know, then, who he is. There is only one knight in the kingdom he could possibly be: Sir Gawain.
Standing on aching tip-toe, I whisper the answer in his ear – and, as the word leaves my mouth, I feel my back straightening, my withered toes pointing the way they used to; the cracks and creases and crevasses in my skin smooth over and I feel a luxuriance of hair cascading over my shoulders, replacing the wiry wisps I have lived with for so long; I feel teeth pushing through long-empty gums and the sounds of the forest are suddenly so loud that I want to leap with joy.
The dark veil has turned, by magic, into one as white and delicate as a single snow flake – and, as I lift it up slowly, I see Sir Gawain looking into my true face for the first time. I feel his hands, warm and questing, peeling the mask from my features – and revealing that I am beautiful.
I laugh, and I cry – for the spell is only half-broken: He has to choose whether to have me lovely at night and hideous by day or the other way around.
I am placing myself into his desire’s control. I am preparing to be guided – as I always have! – by a man’s preferences. But what else can I do? If I influence him in his decision, what is to stop him from rejecting me, running away, leaving me in the chilly grip of the Enchantress’ revenge strategy?
I tell him. His hands continue to enfold mine. His strength and kindness radiate. Can I trust this one?
A moment, or a hundred year stretch, passes. Frozen tears cling and clink like diamonds upon my cheeks. I hear the barking of a fox in the distance. Is it my friend from earlier?
‘My Lady,’ he begins, ‘let me unmask myself before you!’
And I see that he has a weathered face, scarred in places from many battles, and that he is handsome, and, most importantly, that his courtesy and trustworthiness go deep. I see, even before he opens his mouth, that he is not a man to let anyone down lightly: That he is a knight of his word.
‘Lady Ragnell,’ he says, kneeling down in the snow, ‘the decision for such matters must lie with you. Night or day: It is your choice!’
The chains of enchantment shatter and tinkle, insubstantial glitter on a snowy path – and I know that this man, Gawain, has brought healing in his hands and mind. That he has given me the greatest gift a man could give a woman: Sovereignty.
I weep – and the icicles around my heart melt because this man would have honoured both my light and my darkness, and because love is not what I have always assumed it to be: It is something far better and more profound.
I am FREE!