Gawain and ragnell, p.1
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       Gawain and Ragnell, p.1

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Gawain and Ragnell

  Map of Fifth Century Britain and Ireland


  A Short Story From the Pendragon Chronicles


  Ruth Nestvold

  Copyright 2013 by Ruth Nestvold

  Cover by Britta Mack and Ruth Nestvold

  Map by Britta Mack

  First Electronic Edition 2013

  Red Dragon Books

  * * * *

  * * * *

  The Story of Gawain and Ragnell


  And as he rode over a moor,

  He saw a lady where she sat

  Betwixt an oak and a greene hollen;

  She was cladd in red scarlett.

  Then there as shold have stood her mouth,

  Then there was set her eye;

  The other was in her forhead fast,

  The way that she might see.

  Her nose was crooked and turned outward,

  Her mouth stood foule a-wry;

  A worse formed lady than she was,

  Never man saw with his eye.

  Child's Ballads, "The Marriage of Sir Gawain"

  Gawain's mount made slow progress on the muddy track north. The old Roman road had washed out along this stretch, unfortunately. Here on the edge of civilization, only few still tried to uphold the ideals of romanitas — not to mention maintain the paved roads. Each fall of hoof sucked up muck and sludgy water, making it impossible for their party to travel as fast as the situation merited.

  It was a cold, gray land this time of year, the villas few and far between, the struggling villages they passed obviously suffering from repeated bad harvests. Even city marketplaces had little to offer, and the luxury of inns was nearly non-existent. Gawain was glad they had several well-laden pack animals in their train.

  If only he'd had the sense to resist this adventure. But no, he had jumped at the opportunity, had wanted to play the hero after he heard the news the unexpected messenger brought to Caer Leon. It was two weeks after All Hallows according to the Christian calendar (or Samhain according to the old ways), when Father Pabius from Rheged had sought out Arthur, asking for help. The priest had been contacted by Ragnell, a cousin of Arthur's first wife, requesting he come to perform the marriage ceremony for Ragnell and her betrothed.

  "But there was something about both the message and the messenger that didn't fit," Pabius had said, handing a writing tablet of thinly sliced wood to Arthur. "For one, he was no servant of Ragnell's, with his manners and his accent. For another, the message asked me to bring her cousin Gwenhwyfar for the wedding, if she could find the time to come. But Ragnell knows perfectly well that Gwenhwyfar is dead. I am almost sure Ragnell is trying to send a message for help."

  Gawain wondered if anyone else saw Arthur's jaw tighten at the mention of his first wife. And he couldn't help wondering if he himself would still be reacting to Yseult's name in the same way twenty years from now, if by the grace of the gods he lived so long.

  Arthur opened the tablet and scanned the lines, frowning. Done, he looked up. "You were right to come to me, Pabius. Ragnell does not even name her betrothed in this letter. Something has happened. We will need a troop of warriors to go north."

  "May I suggest we proceed carefully?" the priest said. "Ragnell might be in danger. A priest and his escort will be expected, but not a troop of fighting men. I can return north with some of your warriors, as long as they are willing to masquerade as priests. I am a king's son and a trained warrior myself; that may be part of the reason Ragnell sent to me."

  "Good point," Arthur said, nodding. "I will send an escort with you. Once we know the situation — and have someone inside the fort — a larger band of warriors will follow."

  Heartsore and in need of distraction, Gawain stepped forward. "I would be happy to lead such a party, Arthur. Gwenhwyfar was my aunt, after all, and I have ties to the north."

  If Arthur suspected the true reason he had volunteered, he didn't show it. The true reason was Yseult, Gawain's former lover, who had recently married his friend Cador. It seemed over one hundred miles distance between them was not enough for Gawain's peace of mind — he had to increase it by going half the length of Britain.

  And so now Gawain was on his muddy way north with a weary priest and a score of warriors — in winter, no less, when the cold rain could turn to snow any day. It was surprising how much mud and muck and bone-shattering cold was involved in adventure.

  Gawain wiped a combination of sleet and dirt out of his face, accumulated spatter from the hooves of the horses around him. He caught his youngest brother Gareth gazing at him, an infectious grin on his face, as if this were the greatest adventure they had ever set off on together. Without looking, he knew Gaheris's expression would not be so merry. While Gareth saw everything through the distorted lens of his own good nature, including his well-loved wife — a woman most men would call a bitch or worse — Gaheris tended towards the opposite extreme, naturally seeing the worst in everything.

  Gawain hoped he fell somewhere between the two extremes represented by his surviving brothers. He was well aware that in the last few months he had tended more towards Gaheris's view of the world than Gareth's.

  Which was why he had welcomed the grueling journey, the exertion and exhaustion that had him concentrating more on physical discomfort than the emotional pain that would not leave him, the feeling of rejection and anger at Yseult's betrayal — how she had so readily agreed to Arthur's suggestion to marry the King of the Durotriges, when it was well known throughout Britain that she had no intention of marrying again. But while the freezing rain might have been a welcome distraction at first, now he just wanted it to stop. Perhaps losing one's patrimony was not such a bad thing if it meant escaping from this weather. Gawain and his brothers were the sons of Lot of Gododdin, and when their father rebelled, they sided with Arthur. Their loyalty to the Dux Bellorum, to Britain, had cost them their hereditary lands. After their father's death, the Gododdin kinship group had chosen one of their cousins to be king, rather than any of the "traitors" Gawain, Gaheris, or Gareth.

  As he pondered the kingdom that might have been his if not for his loyalty to Arthur, the cold, thick, sleeting mist began turning to snow. Gawain found himself smiling.

  His mount, Ceincaled, snorted and shook his head, and Gawain leaned forward to stroke the neck of his favorite stallion. "There, boy. Hopefully we won't have to spend much time in this irritating white stuff."

  The horse snorted again, louder this time, obviously agreeing.

  * * *

  Ragnell's family held a hill-fort known as Caer Camulodon on the old Roman road halfway between Deva and Eburacum. Situated near the border between Elmet and Rheged on the main road, strategically Caer Camulodon was of immense importance. Although at the moment, the road did not strike Gawain as anything resembling "main." In this region of small kingdoms, no one was powerful enough or responsible enough to be bothered with the maintenance of a paved road, and rather than being flat and even, for long stretches, it was full of such an impassible combination of stone and rainwater and muck, they had to ride next to the old road rather than on it, where a muddy, alternate path had developed.

  It felt strange to be heading in the direction of his former home again. Gawain had not been in this part of Britain since he had ridden with Arthur against the rebel kings in Din Eidyn — one of whom had been Gawain's own father. Over ten years ago now.

  As they began to climb the Pennine Mountains, Pabius rode abreast of him, cutting short Gawain's reflections on the past. "On the other side of the mountains, there is a monastery where your men can leave their war horses and find garments appropriate to the humble retinue of a priest. From there, it is perhaps another five miles to Caer

  Gawain grimaced. "I hope the monastery boasts mules that are both brave as well as strong."

  "I do not doubt it, my lord," Pabius said with a smile.

  Gawain patted Ceincaled's smooth hide. "I will miss you, true companion."

  Ceincaled tossed his head, making Gawain smile.

  "One other thing, Lord Gawain," the priest said. "In order to gain some time, it occurred to me that we could claim Ragnell's cousin could not come until after the Christmas holidays, which would also give Ragnell time to prepare a wedding feast. Hopefully her betrothed will not object to a celebration for the villagers on such a joyful occasion."

  "I see you still have the mind of a strategist," Gawain said with a chuckle.

  Pabius shrugged. "I may be a king's son and a trained warrior, but I was never a military strategist. I have always, however, had a very active imagination."

  "Imagination is a rare but brilliant characteristic in a war leader," Gawain said, thinking of the way Arthur seemed to be able to imagine the course of a battle even before the enemy had taken the positions he anticipated. "Perhaps you missed your true calling."

  "No, I do not think so," Pabius said. "You see, I have no stomach for killing other men, even when they are the enemy."

  * * *

  Gawain found it hard to believe how uncomfortable he felt on the back of a mule, stripped of all the signs of his identity as warrior other than a short sword strapped close to his body, hidden beneath the folds of his monk's robes — where he could barely reach it if threatened. Clothed from head to foot in the garments of a Christian holy man, Gawain felt naked, not himself, ripped of everything that made him who he was. He wondered what it meant, this reaction to being without the physical trappings of his life, his identity as one of Arthur's most respected warriors. How much of himself was no more than the weapons and the armor he wore?

  Hopefully they would be able to be help Ragnell, even without such trappings.

  When they came out of the Elmet forest on the eastern side of the mountains, the hill-fort of Caer Camulodon was clearly visible. Below, stretched between the Elmet stronghold and the ruined Roman fort Cambodunum, was a straggling village of farms, houses and other buildings, including a marketplace, a blacksmith, an inn, and a church.

  They stopped at the church first, where Pabius wanted to speak with the village priest. When he returned to their party, his expression was grim. "It is as I suspected — the hill-fort has been taken by a strange band of warriors. Ragnell's brothers and father are all dead. She has been kept alive to legitimize the kingship of the outlaw leader who killed her family. On Ragnell's instruction, the priest here claimed he had no authority to perform the holy rite of marriage, which is why I was sent for."

  Gawain nodded shortly. "She sounds like a clever woman. I will send one of my men to fetch backup." He glanced at the wide hill-fort of Caer Camulodon. "Even with several of us on the inside, that fortress will not be easy to take back."

  Pabius's gaze followed his. "Hopefully our lies will buy us enough time."


  For he was clad all in green, with a straight coat, and a mantle above; all decked and lined with fur was the cloth and the hood that was thrown back from his locks and lay on his shoulders. Hose had he of the same green, and spurs of bright gold with silken fastenings richly worked; and all his vesture was verily green.

  "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (Anonymous)

  The banners now flying above the walls of Caer Camulodon were without device, simple flags of shimmering green. Gawain and Pabius and the rest of their company rode through gates thrown open in welcome after Pabius announced them. A powerful warrior in a tunic of the same shimmering green emerged from the main hall, a veiled woman on his arm, her skirts swaying with lithe grace as she walked. At least Gawain was not so far gone with disappointed love that he could not appreciate a shapely figure.

  The pair stopped in front of them, and the warrior in green addressed the priest in accents of the north that brought back memories of Gawain's youth. "Well met, Father Pabius. But I do not see my future bride's cousin among your number."

  Pabius clambered down from his mule, the rest of them following suit. "She is detained. She has a Christmas wedding to attend in Glevum, but she sends word that she will come to Caer Camulodon as soon as the festivities are over." Pabius turned to Ragnell. "I hope you will be able to delay your own ceremony long enough to have your loved ones here to witness it."

  "Of course," she said quickly — presumably before her "betrothed" could protest. Then Ragnell threw back her veil, and Gawain saw why she affected such an unusual headdress — more than half of her face was disfigured with what looked like burns, the skin puckered and discolored, her features misshapen and monstrous, one eye strangely pale and dead.

  Pabius drew in a shocked breath. "Ragnell! What happened to you?"

  She shrugged. "An accident some years ago. I do not like to speak of it."

  Pabius turned back to the warrior in green, obviously uncomfortable. "Before the wedding, I will also need your name and place of birth for the church records, my Lord... "

  There was a pause. "Bertilak," the new lord of the hill-fort said.

  "Lord Bertilak," Pabius said, not pressing him about his place of birth. "We have a long, cold journey behind us and we crave your hospitality."

  The outlaw turned lord obviously did not have much practice in the formalities of kingship. Ragnell stepped forward. "Please forgive us in being remiss, Pabius. A house has been prepared for you and the rest of your retinue, and I will arrange for refreshment immediately. This way, please."

  She turned and led them through buildings of wood and stone, populated by warriors in green and women and servants with expressions of dread on their faces. Gawain watched her swaying walk, thinking what a pity it was that her face was so disfigured.

  At a small house with a thatched roof, she stopped and pushed open the door, stepping aside to allow them to enter ahead of her.

  "I am glad you received my message," she said softly after the door had swung shut behind them. "Thank you for coming."

  Pabius dropped his saddlebags on the packed earth. "I am glad you sent for me; I am only sorry I could not be here sooner. Let me introduce you to the humble brethren who accompanied me on my journey."

  Gawain had to admire Pabius's talent for strategic prevarication and misdirection. His men were no less clever; as Pabius said their names, they knelt briefly in front of Ragnell, offering her an imaginary sword before rising again.

  "And Brother Gaw," Pabius said. Gawain too knelt as his men had before him, while Pabius added under his breath so that only she could hear: "Wain."

  Ragnell's good eye widened, and she clenched her hands in front of her waist. "I am honored that you were all willing to accompany Father Pabius on my behalf."

  Gawain rose. "It is we who are honored to be of service, Lady."

  She gazed at him with that face, mostly ravaged and still partly beautiful, and he had an odd moment in which the image shifted in his mind's eye, completing the beauty and taking his breath away.

  "I must go to the kitchens now and see to beer and wine and bread," she said, hurrying out of the guest house.

  "Excuse me," they heard her say immediately after the door closed behind her. Obviously one of Bertilak's men had been waiting outside, keeping an eye on Bertilak's claim to the kingship. "You do not have to protect me all the time. They are men of God."

  "Certainly, Lady Ragnell," the enemy warrior outside answered.

  Gawain and the others looked at each other, and there was no need to speak what they all knew: they would have to tread very carefully.

  * * *

  Gawain wandered the perimeter of the hill-fort, trying to look humble — and examining the defenses at the same time. The weather was still cold, but it was sunnier today, less gray and dismal, with no sign of sleet. He gazed at the earthworks and the green clad warriors posted at regular
intervals. Were there any weaknesses in the fortifications that he and his men could use to their advantage? How had Bertilak taken the hill-fort in the first place? It was an impressive site, high and wide, with a series of ditches and ramparts on the steep slopes that would make it fairly easy to defend. On the other hand, the size of the flat hilltop would require a large warband to fight off attack — perhaps Ragnell's father had not had enough men at his disposal? One of the things they would have to do before reinforcements arrived would be to try and count the fighting men in Bertilak's service. If they could come up with a good estimate, they would have a better idea of how many men would be necessary to retake Caer Camulodon.

  If only there were a way to speak with Ragnell in private; perhaps she remembered something of how the battle had progressed and how the attackers had won.

  "Brother Gaw."

  Gawain turned, wondering if she had some of the same magic as Yseult — it was as if his thoughts had acted as a message to her and brought her to him.

  He bowed his head as he imagined a priest would. "Lady Ragnell. How is it that none of Bertilak's men are following you now?"

  She threw back her veils and laughed, a bright, pleasant sound, surprising given her recent trials. "They think me in the kitchens, where I belong. But I slipped out. I wanted to speak with you."

  "And I with you, Lady."

  She gave him a smile, an odd-looking expression in the middle of her ruined face, and it struck him that her mouth was unharmed, the lips full and red. The destruction of her beauty passed from her right jawbone diagonally across her features, puckering and discoloring the skin from cheek to forehead, but leaving her lips untouched. Even her left profile showed traces of ravished skin, but her lips had somehow escaped the results of the accident.

  "What would the great Lord Gawain want with such a one as me?" she murmured, yanking him out of the contemplation of the landscape of her face.

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