Arthur awakes in the golden wood. He has dreamed of a silver cup or a stone that fell from the sky. He cannot remember which and wonders if it matters. The campfire has gone out. His bedroll is covered in dew. He watches mistletoe flutter on the branch of a tall birch and listens to the bright song of a jay. The journey, he realizes, is collapsing. Two weeks out, and nearly done. The forest seems as if it might close like a giant eye. Soon there will only be the remembrance of these travels. Half-invented tales told in a shadowed hall. Arthur stands and makes his way toward the stream near the encampment, careful not to wake Sir Guyon. The knight looks handsome there in his bedroll—tangle of yellow hair, bristle of a young man’s beard. Arthur remembers how the two of them used to play together in the barley fields west of the castle—Fox and Goose and Hoodman’s Blind.
Arthur kneels before the stream. Shadows glide across the surface of the water. He knows what must happen next if the quest is to continue (and it must continue. He won’t go back . . . not yet). He’s learned his occult imagination from the most convincing of prophets. Arthur relaxes his gaze. Blurs his vision. And there, twisting in the ripples of the water, he sees it: a kind of answer. “What have you found, my lord?” Sir Guyon asks, approaching from behind, eyes still bleary from sleep, wearing only breeches and a coarse linen shirt. Arthur pauses for a moment and then holds his hand out over the water. Guyon looks down and sees nothing. Of course he doesn’t. There’s nothing to be seen. “Darkness,” Arthur says, gravely. “A presage.” “Of what?” Guyon asks. Arthur peers at the water, as if it’s become scryer’s stone. “Cruelly scaled and long-bodied,” he says. “A devil, of sorts.” Sir Guyon takes a step back, and Arthur is pleased. It’s always fear first with the knights, then bravery. He wonders for a moment if Guyon has ever been in love.
The knight has pretended at such emotion, of course. All of them do. They write letters to maidens in their thick unschooled hand. But has he ever felt what Arthur feels—the sting of it?
The two of them ready themselves. The serpent, Arthur says is hidden in a cave on the mountain pass above. Guyon bows his head in prayer, lips moving as he speaks to God. Arthur prays too, but not about a dragon. How long do they travel? Guyon in the lead. Arthur carefully watching the knight’s strong neck, the movement of his lean shoulders. Arthur wonders if a quest like this could be made to last forever. Time might swallow them. Their names will appear side by side in ages of poetry. But their bodies will have disappeared, mixing with the higher air.
When they reach the cave—for there actually is a cave on the mountain pass to Arthur’s surprise—Guyon draws his broadsword. “Does it sleep, my lord?” Guyon asks. Dragons are made of sleep, Arthur thinks. They themselves are dreams. “Sir Guyon,” he says, and the knight turns to look at him, clear eyed and fine. There are too many words behind Arthur’s teeth. None of them will come out. Guyon raises his brow. “What is it?” he asks. Arthur shakes his head. “Tread carefully, my friend.” And together they move into the darkness of the cave. Guyon lights a torch, but the flame light is dim and only serves to make more shadows. They progress down a narrow passage, and Arthur is reminded of the tombs beneath the castle. This place smells of death. “I can hear it breathing,” Guyon whispers. Arthur does not want to believe this. He invented the creature after all. He’s invented all the fabulous things that populate the quests. None of them are real. There is no vast Green Knight. No ghost-white stag. Such things are extensions of his passion. Emotion manifest. Another reason to drag Sir Guyon into the woods.
And yet he too can hear something now, a ragged sound that echoes against the cave walls. The smell of death mixes with the scent of smoke. Guyon slips on loose stone, and Arthur watches his friend tumble down into a large chamber. “Here,” Guyon hisses, righting himself. “Look, my lord.” But Arthur doesn’t need to look. He can feel it. Something has gone wrong. Sir Guyon is advancing on a darkened coil at the center of the stone chamber, excited because, after all this time, he has finally found something to slay. “Wait,” Arthur says, but the coil is already unknotting itself there in the dark. Arthur sees a serpent’s head. The creature’s eyes that are nothing like love. They are white. Blank stones themselves. Like years of waiting. And he wonders what he might do to make this right. If there’s a way to kill the thing in his heart before it does what it intends to do.