Omir the Storyteller

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Story of Lady Ragnell, Part Three


Arthur was of course surprised at Ragnell's request, and had Sir Gawain protested he would have asked her for a different favor. But Sir Gawain finally found his voice and said, "It shall be as she wishes. Fetch a priest. We shall be wed here and now."

Surely the wedding of Ragnell and Sir Gawain was the most unusual ever to be seen at Carlisle. A priest was hastily summoned, and to his credit he performed the ceremony, although it seemed to take much less time than usual. The banquet that was to have celebrated Arthur's victory over the dark knight was quickly repurposed as a wedding feast, but strangely, no one seemed to have an appetite for it except for Ragnell -- now Lady Ragnell, since she was married to a knight -- who ate and drank with great gusto, ripping the joints from the roast pig and downing two glasses of mead. She belched loudly and rubbed her hands on her already-grubby skins.

The other knights mumbled unfelt congratulations that sounded more like expressions of sympathy, and made their exits one by one. At least Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell made their way to the nuptial chamber, which had up until a few hours ago been Sir Gawain's bachelor quarters.

Gawain shut the door behind them, then stood at parade rest while Lady Ragnell surveyed her new home.

"Well, husband," she croaked, sidling up to Gawain in a grotesque travesty of a flirt.

"Well . . . wife," he answered stiffly.

Ragnell drew away from him. "What kind of a groom does not kiss his bride?" she growled. "Am I to be shamed on my wedding night? I chose you for my husband because I sensed an aura of chivalry about you. I had a feeling that you of all the knights of the Round Table would be sensitive to the feelings of one such as I." She turned her head and said, a bit more softly, "Perhaps I was mistaken."

"If you please, milady," Gawain said, keeping his stance, "allow me to speak freely."

She stopped speaking but did not face him.

"I am told that when a woman marries, she has certain expectations. I don't know if all men do, but . . . but I did. I had always thought I would marry into nobility, with great ceremony. If you will pardon me for saying so, this is not at all as I had imagined it." He crossed over to where she was standing and faced her, although her head was down and she did not look at him. "I believe I can be a good husband to you. But please, let me take some time to get used to the idea."

Gawain took her chin in his hand, closed his eyes, stopped his breath, and kissed his wife on the lips. He expected a dry kiss, smelling of mead and decay, backed by a toothless mouth. But as he kissed his bride, he found her lips warm, the kiss full and smelling of hyacinth. To his surprise he held the kiss, then deepened it, and held it still more.

When he finally drew back and opened his eyes Gawain was amazed at what he saw. Gone was the caricature of a woman with a body shaped like a barrel with shoulders. In her place stood a woman about his age and height, with deep green eyes, hair the color of dark honey, red full lips, soft, warm skin and a fine, slender figure. The greasy, smelly skins were replaced by a gown of silk and cotton, as green as her eyes and accented with emeralds of an even darker green. She looked down at her arms in amazement, then threw them around Gawain and kissed his neck.

"Oh, my husband, you have broken the spell!" she cried in a pleasant alto that was as unlike her former voice as a bullfrog's is unlike a nightingale's. "My brother -- the dark knight -- the one Arthur defeated -- he placed a spell on me to make me the horrid creature you saw. Your kiss has freed me from the prison of that body!"

She kissed him again full on the lips, then stepped back. "But only half," she said sorrowfully.

"Half?" Gawain echoed, still not quite recovered from the shock.

"Yes, half. For you see, I can only be as I am now half the time. The rest of the time I am doomed to appear as you saw me when we were wed."

"But . . . uh, when? Which half?"

"That is for you to decide. You must choose whether I am to be a hag during the day, and as I am now at night; or a beauty during the day and a horror by night." She then stopped and looked at him expectantly, as if to say: You must choose now.

Gawain's mind was racing. Why couldn't she have been a dragon? He could handle dragons. What should he do? Should he have her hideous during the day, and sensual and womanly at night; or should he have a wife that others would see and admire during the day, only to lock her away with the other terrors of the darkness?

He struggled with the decision, and as his mind raced, weighing the pros and cons, he heard a voice rise over the confusion. It was the voice of Arthur, recounting the defeat of the dark knight. What was it Arthur had said that led to the knight's downfall?

What is it that a woman truly wants above all else?

Only this: To be sovereign unto herself.

And then another voice echoed in his head: his own, as he took the oath he had sworn before Arthur when he became a knight of the Round Table:

I swear to always do ladies, gentlewomen and widows succor.

I swear I shall never force ladies, gentlewomen or widows.

"Let it be as you will," Gawain said.

"What did you say?" she asked.

"It is your decision," Gawain said. "You are the captain of your own destiny. You shall choose for yourself."

As the words left his mouth Gawain thought he could hear singing. Had he been with Arthur in Inglewood he would have recognized the music as the fairy choir Arthur heard when he first met Ragnell. As he watched, it seemed as though he saw the two forms of his wife, one superimposed on the other; and then slowly, the voices and the image of the hag disappeared.

"That's it!" Ragnell cried. "Oh, my husband, my love, you have broken the spell entirely! I was under geas not to tell anyone how to free me from the spell, but you have done it." And she embraced him, and they kissed, and one thing led to another.

No one saw them for four days. The court jester later said that the only reason they emerged then was because Sir Lionel went up to Gawain's quarters to find out if his bride had eaten him. From that time forward Sir Gawain's wife was known not as Lady Ragnell, but Lady Nell, and no man and wife were ever happier.

You will note that I did not begin my tale with "Once upon a time." I wish I could end it with "and they lived happily ever after," but I'm afraid that was not to be. Oh, they were as happy as man and wife ever were, but they were only together for five years. And while Gawain married several times during his lifetime, he never loved anyone as deeply or as well as Lady Nell.


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