For awhile, the azure sky was enough to hide in, the refuge of the forest able to keep my secrets. But nothing remains the same forever, and my life changed the day the knight came to town.
He was a tall man, made even larger in his armor, and bristling with red beard and hair bright as copper. He and his horse, standing the center of the market square, became the focus of attention, surreptitiously. The villagers watching him from the corner of their eyes, hurrying their children around him, hiding their pretty daughters and wives. We didn’t often get knights, but they didn’t have a very good reputation. Drunk with power and authority, and usually booze as well, they’d rampage through the village destroying what they wanted to.
I was crouching behind a cart, watching this red-bearded knight through the slats. He wasn’t rampaging at all, but trading politely with some of the old crones for their wizened apples and wilted vegetables. They were swindling him as well, but he didn’t seem to mind. Most peculiar. I decided to retreat and resolved to find out why he was here that night while he slept. I wiped my dirty hands on my apron and crawled out from the cart, occupied with not staining my only dress and with the basket of apples, my purported reason for being here.
I was just dusting myself off when a shadow loomed over me and I looked up. The knight was standing over me, so tall he blocked the sun, and my heart stopped. He was giving me a look and he knew, I could tell he knew.
He smiled, a crinkling smile that hid his blue eyes, and held out a hand. “Delighted to meet you. I am Gawain, one of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table.”
“Ah, um,” I responded cleverly, and ignored his hand, which was the size of a small dinner plate, “It’s a pleasure, sir, to meet you and you..honor, welcome to the humble, our humble village I mean…”
“It’s fine,” he laughed. “I don’t require polite speech.” Then his smile faded, and he continued in a more serious voice, so low I had to lean forward to hear him, “Sarah, I’ve come here looking for you. Is there a place we could speak more privately? Perhaps tonight?”
The words sent an electric shock through me, because I’d been dreading this day. They’d burn me now, or worse – this man knew my secret, and my name. But how? Anger and curiosity – and more than a little fear – fighting inside of me, I hissed, “Not here, or everyone will think you’re soliciting me! I am an honest girl. Tonight. Midnight. Meet at the crossroads to the west of the village. I may be there.”
He smiled again. It was like a ray of sun breaking through the clouds. “You can trust me,” he said quietly, and then more loudly, “How much for those apples there, young lady?”
I sold him some apples in what I hoped was a genuine manner – I thought it’d be suspicious to charge him anything less than five times the going price – and he wandered away with another smile and a wink.
That night I was meant to be working at the inn where I lived with the other barmaid in a dark room at the back. In the morning, you could hear the pigs shuffling and snorting for their breakfast, and smell them too. It was not a particularly nice existence, but if I was serving the villagers their beer then they liked me. And if they liked me, they wouldn’t burn me.
But that evening I was too wrought to act like my usual simpering fool self. I couldn’t decide what to do. Should I meet this Gawain at the crossroads and see what he had to say? It seemed an awful effort for him to go to just to get a girl. Surely there were easier methods for a knight like himself. No, he knew my name. Whatever he wanted to speak to me about, it was serious. I was sure he knew my secret and my shame. Perhaps I should kill him. Could I kill him? Poison, perhaps, or a knife in the neck.
I’d worked myself into a mess by the time midnight came and I was standing in the trees just outside the crossroads. I was biting my nails, waiting for a shadow in the moonlight on the road to show me he was there.
Then, without warning, the freezing burn of a knife against my neck, that sharpness and fragility coming into focus in a breathtaking second. I could hear this man’s thoughts behind me: he was going to rape me, then kill me. He was feeling particularly fortunate to find a young lady on her own at night.There was no time to think further. I shoved all my strength, fear, and hatred back into his head and the knife slipped away, the man fell with a crash. I whirled around to see him twitching his last miserable breath in the leaf-mold. It wasn’t Gawain.
A noise behind me, towards the road. I whirled again. Gawain was floating down from the sky; I thought I was going mad for a second. He saw me standing there over a dark figure and when his feet touched the ground, he loped forward. Stood over the man with me and put his hands on his hips, watching the blood run from the man’s nose and eyes and mouth.
“I killed him,” I said numbly. “I’ve never done that before. Didn’t know I could do that.”
“He would have killed you otherwise,” said Gawain reasonably. “You’ve saved the world from a very unsavoury character.”
When I was done vomiting, I wiped my mouth, and said, “You flew. I saw you. You flew.”
“Yes,” he said, not denying. “You and I – we both have some very special powers. All the Knights of the Round Table do. I came here to ask you: will you join us? Will you help us try to make the world a better place?”
I kicked at the prone form lying on the leaves. “I don’t know if I can kill again,” I said, “but if it means I don’t have to be afraid of the villagers burning me for witchcraft, I will try to help you.”
“You’ll never have to be afraid again,” said Gawain, and put a hand on my shoulder.