I liked this writing prompt. So many names immediately came to mind: Charon (I have other plans for you, sir…), Oedipus, Robin Hood.
But one name I couldn’t shake. I love this figure, and the complex role he plays in his mythos. He’s been everything from a drunken churl to the height of chivalry. He’s carried Arthur to Avalon and died in a duel with Lancelot. I’ve played with the idea of using him as a character for a long time, and this seemed like a great excuse to do it.
I based the background for this work on the medieval fable ‘The Green Knight’. If you haven’t read it, it’s a fascinating exploration of medieval culture, including a plethora of multilayered symbolism to unravel. I’ve always found it fun to read period works and see how they still hold up today.
Anyway, please enjoy, and tell me in the comments which figures you’d like to tug out of mythology for your own rekindling.
THE GREEN KNIGHT
By Kimberley Imrie
Gawain yawned as he shifted his grip on the hot cup, walking down the sodden street. It was a wet spring, the rain seeping in oily puddles into the cracked road. An isolated late-night taxi sped by, casting a shower of muddy drops across the pavement. The rain always made him retrospective.
It was supposed to be a competition of nerve: Take my head and allow me to take yours a year later. When the stranger wandered in with the offer, calling himself the Green Knight and clearly lost in his drink, no one thought it any more than that.
But when Arthur rose with a laugh, offering to take the man’s head himself, Gawain’s fingers twitched and balled into fists—even as lost to his own drink as he was. Meaningless competition or not, he couldn’t let his liege put himself at risk.
A man murmured to himself in an alcove, drawing a sad smile to Gawain’s lips. He’d tried for a breakthrough since he arrived, but the if the man didn’t want to change, there wasn’t much Gawain could do to help. “Kenny, how you holding up?” His words lilted with the accent he still carried from his youth.
Kenny coughed, giving a barking laugh. “Oh good. The rain keeps the c-crickets away.” Gawain offered the cup without a word, giving him a warm smile. Kenny accepted with a nod and salute. “You’re a good friend, S-Sir knight.”
“Hey, I talked to Bev. She’s got a bit of work. Small stuff you can do in your wanders. Give you a bit of an adventure. You up for it?”
Kenny laughed again, a light twitch jerking his arm as he shook Gawain’s hand. “I’m ever the adventurer. She’s g-got good bread.”
Gawain chuckled. “Good. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Kenny. Keep warm.”
How many Kennys had he seen in his long life? Each with a history as tragic as the next—loss and pain compounded by a world that didn’t care. He ached for them all. Some he had better luck guiding than others. But always, the choice to help themselves was their own.
He shoved his hands in his pockets as he kept moving, falling back into old memories as the rain picked up.
He’d loved Arthur—followed him with respect and devotion. But Arthur’s concerns were larger than trekking across the country to bare his neck for the headsman. So when the man calling himself the Green Knight came, Gawain took the contest in Arthur’s place. Despite the offered terms though, none of them took it seriously until the stranger’s head fell away in one clean strike.
After the shock of the initial blow, Gawain was almost expecting it when the man bent to pick up his own liberated head. Almost. To this day, he wondered how different life would be if he’d just kept to his seat and let the farce unravel. Simpler, likely. Easier to explain, certainly. Shorter.
Whatever it was, the story became fodder for bards for years. And as embellished as they were, the fables largely got it right. The broad strokes, anyway. What they missed was what happened after.
When the Green Knight’s axe touched his willingly offered neck (at least mostly willingly. Grumpily, but willingly), Gawain… changed. Awakened. Grew. His eyes opened for the first time. He saw color as it truly was, he heard the world’s song in the glory of its symphony.
A trickle of blood ran down his neck as he straightened, staring at his surroundings in awe. The Green Knight smiled and turned the axe, offering Gawain the hilt. In his new awareness, Gawain could see just how tired the man was. Just how spent.
After handing Gawain his axe, the Green Knight slipped his shield—emblazoned with the coiled pentangle—from his back. He left it against a tree as he walked away without a word, stooped shoulders straightening, their weight now lifted.
The shield was the perfect fit, the axe’s haft built for Gawain’s fingers.
These days, the shield remained at home and the axe was usually replaced by a concealable knife. Though they were both close at hand if he needed them.
Gawain paused, tugging the crumpled napkin from his pocket to read the address one more time, before looking at the run-down diner in dismay. This was definitely the place.
He caught wind of this guy after cutting open a shipping container of terrified immigrants. Easy prey for a human trafficking ring. It made his blood boil. From there, it took a month to narrow down an address, which was apparently a hell of a lot faster than the authorities. Better that way, anyway.
For just before midnight in the gutter of the city, the place was hopping. Gawain slid onto a stool at the bar, a too-thin woman approaching with a faint smile. Dark bags under her eyes marked her long nights, her plunging neckline a testament to the crowd that filled them. He nodded toward a generic bottle in the display and she popped the cap, setting it in front of him with a napkin. “You have a name for your tab, hun?”
“Gawain. Shouldn’t be here long, though.”
She blinked, raising an eyebrow. “I somehow wasn’t expecting an accent. Irish?”
He gave a faint smile and shrug. He lost count of how many times he heard that. “Scottish.” Sort of.
“It suits you.” Her eyes flicked across him through lowered lashes.
“I should hope so. It’s the only one I have.” Gawain chuckled. Why women always reacted that way to his voice he’d never know
She laughed. “You waiting for someone?”
“I am, actually. Guy named Henrick. You know him? He’s a friend of my sister.”
“Everyone here knows Henrick. He’s in a booth back there. Your sister’s a lucky girl—the guy’s a charmer.”
Gawain restrained a sneer. “That he is.” He watched as she slid down the bar to a newcomer, his eyes seeing nothing but the man hidden in the booth at the back of the diner. There were too many people like this asshole. Too many who slid between the cracks and thought they could get away with it.
He was there to remind them that they couldn’t.
He splayed his hands on the bartop, feeling the cool surface beneath his touch, letting himself center on the tangible reminder of his surroundings. After so long, sometimes it was easy to disconnect.
When he pushed himself back to his feet, the air in the small room changed. Even the flirty server cast him a nervous glance as he passed.
Gawain prided himself on his ability to take the world in stride, to see the lightness surrounding him and to never take himself too seriously. Goddamn Lancelot was a reminder of why one’s feet should remain firmly rooted on the ground.
But sometimes… sometimes the moment demanded gravity.
“Henrick, can I join you?”
The man was small. Dark hair curled around his ears, an easy smile on his lips. That smile faltered as he looked at Gawain. “Sorry, do I know you?”
“Not yet. A girl I know told me about you. Told me you might be able to help me with something.”
Henrick shifted in his seat, eyeing Gawain’s imposing stature before motioning to the opposite bench. “I can be a pretty helpful guy, but that depends on what you’re looking for. I know lots of girls though. Which one pointed you my way?”
Gawain smiled, the gesture emphasising the simmering in his eyes as he sat. “Hala.”
Henrick froze and Gawain continued. “You remember her, then. That’s good. Makes this easier.”
Henrick narrowed his eyes and lowered his voice. “I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you turn around and walk the fuck back out-“
“-Or your men will drag me into that there alley with a gun to my head?” Gawain tossed a bag on the table, containing the weapons he’d already confiscated from Henrick’s lackeys.
Henrick frowned and took the bag, blanching as he realized what it contained.
Gawain leaned forward, holding the other man’s eyes. “I know you have another shipment going out. I’d like to know where it is now and who’s buying.”
Gawain grinned as Henrick’s pistol cocked beneath the table. Henrick’s words were smooth—the bastard had too much practice levying threats. “You’re going to stand up and turn around, and we’re goin-“
“-I’ll stop you right there, mate. Like I said, I have some information I’d like to know.” Gawain pulled out a map of the city and a pencil. “So how bout you jot down some details and circle anything important.”
“You’re out of your fuc-“
Gawain moved in an instant, snatching the pistol from Henrick’s grip and pressing the barrel against his leg. Henrick tried to twitch his leg away and Gawain squeezed the trigger. Henrick shouted in pain, screams sounding behind them as the other late-night patrons ran.
Gawain’s eyes never left Henrick’s as he offered the pencil once more. Henrick sobbed, taking it in shaking hands and scribbling franticly on the map, circling two locations near the docks. Gawain glanced down with a nod. He could feel the truth in the air. “That’s good. I’ll save a lot of lives with this. Lives that you would have taken.”
“P-p-please let me go!”
Gawain gave a sad smile, his voice soft. “I can’t do that, Henrick. I can see your crimes, sir. I can see the bullet you put in the poor girl’s head because she was sick and was slowing you down. I can see the families you tore apart when you stole their women and pumped them with drugs to keep them docile. I can see your intention right now to walk from this room and join your contacts to regroup.”
Henrick stared, shock sending tremors through his hands as his eyes widened. “W-who are you?”
“I’m the Green Knight.”
Gawain aimed the pistol at Henrick’s heart and squeezed the trigger once more. “God be with you, sir. May you find forgiveness.”
He didn’t bother hiding the gun. He didn’t need to worry about fingerprinting or cameras. His duty was what carried him. Map in hand, he left the diner. There was more work to do.
There was always more work to do.
I hope you enjoyed reading! There’s something so dramatically satisfying about writing the outsider. Outside from time in this case, or place, or society, it grants a powerful perspective of the world impossible to see from inside.
Different characters and fables appeal to everyone, and I look forward to hearing which ones spark your imagination enough to pull them into today’s word.