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Those teeth – “Eleleu!” – Backlash – before the End – Clip-Clop-Clip –

Those teeth shining Cearb clings to the green fence railing the bridge above the welter of freeway ramps. A horn blats from the traffic trundling behind him. He’s staring down, humming, one arm hooked through the wire mesh, face pressed against it. Tires whining red lights chase white lights down the freeway under the bridge beneath him. He purses thin lips about those teeth and thunder welling up under the sounds of engines and wheels he closes his eyes.

He opens them. The freeway below is empty. He turns his head. The bridge behind him quiet and still. “Yes,” whispers Cearb. The thunder spills over as one two six horses race around the curl of the ramp down the eastbound lanes, riders in red coats dark in the dim pink light. “Yes!” cries Cearb, letting go, falling back to the sidewalk and tumble scuttling across the empty bridge through a wailing ghost of a horn, clambering up the green fence railing the other side. He perches there panting, hands and sneakered feet wrapped around the green rail. Horses galloping below slow and faltering lean one way and another double back. Laughter and whoops. “Catch me,” says Cearb, “judge me, beat me,” the words like handclaps, “write what I’ve done in your big black book!” His voice a rasp snagging on labored breaths. “But where will you write down all I’ve suffered?” Cearb rears up hands in the air and roars, “Who will rage for me? Gallowglas! Gallowglas!”

Clang the spear shivering head caught in the mesh below his sneakers thrumming arms whirling for balance as below the Duke yells “Dagger!” The laughter’s gone. A horse screams. The spear caught still reaching for the top of its arc, spear-haft a lever, spear-head wrenching the mesh, as Cearb grabs for the railing with one wild hand, hanging there for one long moment, spear-butt floating, drooping, falling, spear-head pulling free with a squawk tumbling butt catching the edge of the bridge with a clunk spinning out over them below, the Duke’s horse rearing, the Dagger’s wallowing sideways hooves churning on the pavement as the spear-haft clatters bouncing end-to-end on the freeway. “The fuck are you trying to do?” The Duke, hauling his reins half-standing in the saddle, glaring at the Dagger. “Strike him? With a mortal on the field, you moron?”

“Eleleu!” cries Cearb, slapping the railing. “Eleleu!”

“Ignore him!” says His Grace, big bay stepping sideways, back again. “Bad enough we’re hunting the boar. Kill that little fuck, you’ll bring her down on our heads for sure. Helm!”

“Lord!” she calls from behind him.

“Take the moron east to the Thiry-third Avenue bridge and hold there.” He looks back over his shoulder at her. “Wind if you see the fucker. Pin him but damn well do not finish him until I show, got me?”

“M’lord,” says the Helm. In one hand she’s holding a coiled horn the color of old piano keys.

“Not so fast, moron,” says the Duke. The Dagger about to kick one foot free of the stirrup settles back mouth pinched. “You leave that thing right the hell where it lays. Gallowglas.” Jo’s looking back and forth, Ysabel to the Duke, the spear on the pavement, Ysabel again, her horse stepping nervously in place. “Eleleu!” cries Cearb above them. “Pick it up, Gallowglas,” says the Duke.

“M’lord!” says the Dagger.

“Go!” bellows the Duke. The Helm kicks her horse into a run down the freeway. “Get the hell down to the Thirty-third bridge!” The Dagger, scowling, gallops after. “Gallowglas, pick up the damn spear.”

“I’m here, uh, to do what I do,” says Jo. “Be on the field of battle. Whatever. I – ”

“I’ll be sure to tell him when he’s running us down,” says the Duke. “Pick it up, don’t pick it up. I were you, I had nothing in my pocket, I’d take whatever I could get.” He’s not looking away from her. Shivering, Jo shakes a foot loose and over her horse’s back, sliding to the ground. “Strike, Gallowglas!” cries Cearb, metal clanging furiously. “Eleleu! Strike!”

“Shut the fuck up!” yells Jo, stock still, fists balled, glaring up into the pink-hazed darkness, and then the only sound is the wind tugging at trees to either side of the freeway. Ysabel’s horse, clopping, one step and another. “Who is that guy?” says Jo.

“You’re holding this end,” His Grace is saying to Marfisa. “You got a horn?”

“If we see him, you’ll hear me,” says Marfisa.

“You see him, I want you hauling ass back over the river,” says the Duke. “I got no fucking clue in this world why I’m not telling you to do that right this minute.”

“I’ll keep her safe, Your Grace,” says Marfisa.

“Yes,” says the Duke. “You will.”

Jo stands, the spear in both hands, looking up and down its length. The head like a mirrored leaf long as her forearm butted by round black quillions almost as long. The haft-wood dark and smooth and straight, swelling at the end to a ringed black ferrule that chimes gently as she shifts it. “Good boar-stop,” she says, and then, “He threw this?”

“You ready?” says the Duke.

“A minute,” says Jo, looking up at her horse. She shifts the spear to her left hand, reaches up for the reins with her right, starts to lift her left foot for the stirrup and stops. “Shit,” she says. Lets go of the reins, takes the spear in her right hand, reaches up with her left for the reins, then the pommel. Takes a deep breath. “Let me,” says Ysabel. She’s behind Jo, reaching down for the spear. “Climb up, I’ll hand it back to you,” she says.

“Avaunt already,” says the Duke. “Ain’t got all night.”

“How was the ride?” says Ysabel.

“I don’t,” says Jo, both hands on the saddle and reins, grunting as she hauls herself up, “I don’t like leaving you alone.”

“I’m not alone.”

Jo looks over her shoulder as the Duke canters away to the east, hoofbeats thudding on the dark freeway. “This is getting out of hand.”

“Was it ever in hand?” says Ysabel, handing her the spear, butt-first. “Don’t think about the traffic.”

“Traffic?” says Jo.

“Don’t think about it,” says Ysabel.

“You mean to strike Erymathos with that?” says the Helm.

White lights shine deep in the blade of the Dagger’s sword. Long and slender, wrapped in brown leather above the quillions, corded hilt ending in a pommel like a great joint. He holds it out to the side in one hand up at the top of the hilt, fingers curled about those quillions. “Bertilak dismounted,” he says, lifting his arm, slowly, “brandished his bright blade, and boldy stepped forward,” lifting that sword up over his head, passing the hilt to his other hand, lowering, slowly, out to the other side. “Strode through the ford to where his foe waited.” Red lights shine, deep in the blade of his sword.

“You’re no Bertilak,” says the Helm. Her horse whickers. Up past the bridge behind her red letters on the wall of a big blank building say Gordon’s Fireplace Shop. “He dismounted. A sword’s hardly the thing to strike a boar from horseback.”

“You still think we’re going to strike the boar.”

“Well,” says the Helm. “There’s but one relay of hounds. If you can call it a relay. It’s to flush him out, not run him down. His Grace posted us here on the off-chance Erymathos misses him, standing in the middle of the damn,” she’s looking up the freeway, turns, looks down it, squinting into the shadows. “Ford,” she adds. “No,” she says. “I don’t think we will. This is a duel, not a hunt.”

“How long has it been since we’ve had a proper hunt?” says the Dagger.

“You’re not angry about losing your spear,” says the Helm.

“The blood, at the unmaking, bright on the snow,” says the Dagger. He laughs, a short flat bark. “How long has it been since we’ve seen a proper snow?”

“Sidney,” says the Helm.

“You saw her,” says the Dagger. “What she’s doing to our lady. Out cavorting all night with her like that.”

“What business is that of ours,” says the Helm, looking at him, the sword in his hand.

“She’s the bride of the King Come Back!” says the Dagger.

“Don’t tell me what you would do,” says the Helm. “And I won’t tell you not to do it.”

“Listen!” says the Dagger, sitting up in his saddle. Off in the dark, the sound of firecrackers, pop pop pop.

One hand beating the steering wheel Mr. Charlock writhes on the front seat blindly kicking the door. Head in Mr. Keightlinger’s lap, face lost somewhere under Mr. Keightlinger’s palm. A wrench and he’s suddenly still, taut, his voice slicing through the car, pitched high, scoured. His back arches, heels dug into the seat, then sagging, drooping, quiet. Mr. Keightlinger lifts his hand. Mr. Charlock takes a deep breath and rolls over in a sudden coughing fit. “Fucking backlash,” he says, when he can sit up, feather dangling from his sunglasses. He straightens his collar, the knot of his tie. Smooths wayward curls by his ears.

“They coming?” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“They’re here,” says Mr. Charlock, pointing out the front window toward the darkness at the end of the street. “Right down the freeway. Whole big chunk of it decoupled.”

Mr. Keightlinger grunts. He pulls off his sunglasses, wipes them on his tie.

“She’s right there with ’em,” says Mr. Charlock, and then pop pop pop pop pop.

Mr. Keightlinger jerks open his door, steps out on the sidewalk. Mr. Charlock’s already running down the street toward the great mass of darkness shouldering treebranches aside, starting into streetlight as another string of firecrackers pops at its feet. Grey and white and yellow hair like quills about its ruff. Tusks swinging through the air as it screams. A man in a dirty blue raincoat yelling something wordless as he lights another string, pop pop. The boar hunching leaning into a run down the street. Mr. Charlock watches as it locomotives past, pop pop pop. “Run you magnificent sonofabitch! Run!” Past Mr. Keightlinger, past the black car whorled with spidery white letters, down the street toward the house at the end, the high fence behind it, the darkness beyond.

The walls of the gulch rise to either side of the freeway, dark and close and lined with shapeless trees, crowned with a row of houses to the north. The Duke’s horse trotting through dappled pools of thin dirty light down the eastbound lanes, Jo behind, leaning in the saddle, the long black spear under one arm. “Come on,” calls the Duke back over his shoulder.

“I’m, uh,” says Jo, reins in one hand out to the side, trying to haul back the spear swinging wide, “a bit distracted – ”

“Well,” says the Duke, looking away, “don’t worry about me, Gallowglas.”

“What?” says Jo, horse leaning one way after the reins, herself the other, after the spear.

“I have an appointment yet to keep,” says the Duke, not looking back. “You won’t be the death of me.”

“Why do,” says Jo, and then “hey, whoa — ” Her horse kicks forward as she lurches back spear tipping out of her hand dropping spear-head striking the pavement with a bright clang. Yanking the reins her horse stomping to a stop. “The fuck,” the Duke’s saying, hauling his horse around. “I thought you could ride.”

“Why do you keep blaming me for that?” says Jo, slumped in her saddle. Looking up. “It was Roland who killed him — ”

“A sword thrust?” sneers the Duke. “A sword thrust is nothing. You hadn’t been there, he’d’ve laughed and bought the Chariot a drink. If you hadn’t been there, Tommy’d be telling me right now what an ass I am, out here in the middle of the night like this.”

“So instead you’d be what, in bed with your blonde?” says Jo, looking him in the eye. “Leave that monster out here to run amok doing God knows what?”

“Hark! The screams!” The Duke lifts a hand to his ear. “The people, fleeing from a monster run amok!” He drops his hand, arches an eyebrow. “Two things, okay, and leave her the hell out of this. She’s a nice girl. First. The boar wants one thing and one thing only and I’m right here and don’t you dare, don’t you dare even suggest I would not keep my word. And anyway, you’re so fucking worried about this monster, why didn’t you come do something about it? Why wait for me?”

“What can I do?” says Jo. Throwing her hands out. “What the fuck can I do? I can’t even hold a goddamn spear!”

“You don’t have to do anything!” roars the Duke. “Just standing there you could kill us all!”

Jo’s horse kicks the pavement, shifting. She doesn’t look away. The Duke’s horse stands still and the Duke is holding a spear now, the spear-haft dark and red, the head a broad flat ugly blade, and he doesn’t look away.

“I don’t,” says Jo, as the Duke says “Pick up your spear.” Above them, away behind the line of houses, the sudden pop pop pop of firecrackers. “Pick up the damn spear!” says the Duke.

A crack and something, boards, flying into the air, a squealing roar, dark trees shaking undergrowth ripping a rattling crash and then the sound of debris, settling. There on the roof of a long low building squatting above the freeway a great dark shape, bristling ruff high above the snout lowered over them, curls of old yellow glistening in the dim light. “The tracks,” says Jo. “He can’t – ” Below the building a sharp drop in the gulch wall down to railroad tracks, a high wall back up to the freeway, ten or fifteen feet up, the great dark shape hunkering low, a growl, Jo’s horse snorting, head tossing. The boar springs from the roof, over those tracks, clearing the wall, a scream and a thunderclap, the horses staggering, “Oh, shit,” says Jo, and there he stands in a cloud of pink-lit dust on the freeway, chunks of pavement pattering down like rain.

“They’ll be fine,” says Ysabel, eyes closed, standing there under the bridge, her cheek against the throat of her pale grey horse. “Or did you really want words with Erymathos, before the end?”

Marfisa stands with her back to Ysabel out on the freeway, watching away down the eastbound lanes.

“He hurt you so badly,” says Ysabel, opening her eyes. “Your poor face. You could have died. Gone down to dust. You still could.”

“My lady seems almost upset at the idea,” says Marfisa.

Ysabel walks away from the horses, out from under the bridge. Puts her arms around Marfisa, leans against her back, her head on Marfisa’s shoulder, cheek against the tweed. Marfisa puts her hand on Ysabel’s hands, her head tilting back, hair the color of clotted cream tangling with loose black curls.

“You’re not very good at this game,” says Ysabel, smiling.

Stiffening Marfisa tries to step away. “I don’t want to play games,” she says, pulling at Ysabel’s hands.

“Then don’t,” says Ysabel, letting her go, pulling her back. Face to face now, Marfisa turning away, looking down, Ysabel’s hands clasped at the small of Marfisa’s back, Marfisa’s hanging useless at her side. Smiling Ysabel leans up, kisses the tip of Marfisa’s nose. “The boar,” says Marfisa, her voice thick.

“Let it,” says Ysabel. Light grows around them, bright, yellow-white.

“We should be – ”

“We should be doing what we’re doing.”

“Lady,” says Marfisa, squinting against the light.

“Shut up,” says Ysabel, pulling her into a kiss as the light splits in two, a sudden blare of engine overwhelming white snout of a truck headlights passing either side buffeted by spinning wheels, the trailer over and around them dark as they kiss clinging to each other red taillights whipping past and gone. The horses watch as laughing Ysabel spinning stumbling tugs Marfisa after her to the barricade in the middle of the freeway another rush of engine dopplering past them slashing ghosts of white and red light through the air. Ysabel half-sitting on the barricade one hand under Marfisa’s skirt the other buried in pale curls stained a dirty peach in the weak light, Marfisa kissing her mouth, her throat, Marfisa’s hands jerking buttons loose, tugging Ysabel’s baggy pants over her hips, Marfisa stooping, those pale curls eclipsing the light winking from Ysabel’s belly. Ysabel one arm around the squat green pillar set in the barricade throws her head back as half-heard half-seen cars and trucks billow past east and west, before and behind her, stitching the darkness with light.

“Oh shit,” says Jo on her hands and knees, “oh God.” Sobbing for breath. “It’s not,” the Duke is saying, strained, over away somewhere, “it’s not dead.” A grunt, the scrape of hair like quills against broken concrete, muscles creaking, something else, metal, something groaning, out of it all a single hoofbeat: clip. Another, clop. Jo scrabbling, Chuck Taylors kicking into almost a run, hands brushing the freeway, head down, “Oh shit.” A blustering, querulous snort. “It’s not,” says the Duke again. “You sonofabitch. You lied.” Clip. “Fuck me, it hurts. It’s not dead.”


The boar Erymathos stands in the middle of the eastbound lanes swaying from side to side. From his left shoulder juts a dark red spear-haft. The pale cracked concrete beneath him smeared black. He blows, head ducking, tusks dipping, takes another couple of steps, clip-clop-clip. Spear-haft quivering. Head turning this way and that. Behind him the Duke’s horse jerks its head up and legs kicking the air rolls upright. The Duke screams. The boar turns to glare at him, head canted, spear drooping. “Stupid! Fucking! Horse!”

There by the barricade the black spear. Jo reaches for it when the boar looks away. The Duke’s horse staggers past, empty brown boot flopping from one stirrup. Clop-clip, the boar unsteadily steps toward the Duke. “Hey,” says Jo, standing, black spear braced in both hands. “Hey!”

“Gallowglas?” cries the Duke. “The horn! The fucking horn!” Trying to push himself up on one elbow. “Don’t be a moron. Blow!”

“Hey!” yells Jo. Clop-clip, clop. That great head grey and yellow and white hair like quills in its ruff turning like a sail, those old yellow tusks, those little black eyes casting back and forth. “Over here!” Clip-clop, and two more steps, clop-clop. “The horn!” says the Duke again.

Jo swallows. Redoubles her grip on the spear-haft. The boar looming over her. “It’s on your fucking horse,” she says, squeezing her eyes shut.

The boar Erymathos takes one last step and with a sigh crumples to the ground.

Jo opens her eyes. She’s on her knees, the black spear laid beside her. Someone’s hand on her shoulder. “The tongue,” says the Helm, grey hair dull in this thin light. “Fix the tongue.” Jo lifts a hand. Drifts of glittering dust spill from her arm to her lap, sparkle across the freeway about her. “Fix the tongue before it all blows away.”

The boar’s head still looms before her. Dust sloughs from the tusks, whips into the air in a sudden gout that suddenly subsides. One of the tusks sags avalanching down the boar’s hollow cheek, dust shining in the ruff itself dissolving into dust. Beyond the head nothing but dust and more dust, empty pavement, thin dirty light. The Helm reaches past Jo for the slack jaw, working it open, the tongue purple and black in her fist. She stabs it with a slender knife, striking the concrete with a tinny clink. Rocks back on her heels, a hand on Jo’s shoulder again. Jo blinking against the glittering dust thick in the air about them. “My leg,” says the Duke, over away somewhere. “Really fucking hurts.”

“Whatsisname,” says Jo, brushing dust from her arms, then reaching for the black spear. “The Dagger. Where – ”

“He won’t want it back,” says the Helm, standing.

“I didn’t,” says Jo, but the Helm’s headed over to the Duke. “I mean,” says Jo. The back of the boar’s head collapses then in swirls of dust. The remaining tusk wobbles, dust unskeining as it settles but doesn’t fall. Hoofbeats. Jo climbs to her feet, the spear left there on the freeway. “Hey,” she says, looking about. “Dagger?”

Marfisa’s riding toward them, leading the Duke’s horse by the reins, Ysabel on her pale grey horse behind. “Jo!” Ysabel calls. Kicking one leg over her horse’s back even as it slows.

“Yeah,” Jo’s saying, looking about. “I’ve got to, um.” She leans down, reaching for the spear.

Marfisa comes up behind the Helm, kneeling over the Duke still flat on his back. “Your leg’s broken,” she says.

“Bullshit,” says the Duke, his face pale, slick.

“I’ve seen one before,” says Marfisa, kneeling beside the Helm. The Helm stands.

“Jo,” Ysabel’s saying, and Jo says “I’m okay. I’m okay,” and “What the hell are you doing here?” as Ysabel says “Are you okay?”

“You were supposed to get the hell out of here,” says Jo.

“We heard the horn,” says Ysabel. “Marfisa wouldn’t. Are you okay?”

“The Dagger,” Jo’s saying. She coughs. “I need to give it back to him. Where the fuck is he?”

The Dagger kicking drifts of dust stalks among the horses. In one hand his slender sword, wrapped in brown leather just above the quillions. In the other a coiled horn the color of old keys.

“Don’t,” Ysabel’s saying. “Put it down. Put the spear down.”

“The Duke,” says Jo. “Killed it. Why is there so much dust.”

“Jo,” says Ysabel, and then her eyes go wide. “Ysabel?” says Jo, and she turns to look as the Dagger swings his sword up and back behind his head.

“My DDR game’s pretty much fucked, isn’t it,” gasps the Duke, eyes closed. Marfisa nods, her fingers gently probing his misshapen leg. The Dagger’s boot crunching beside her. She looks up to see that sword swinging around from behind his head in a flat arc at her neck. She has time to say “What?”


Blade tip braced against pavement sword hilt clutched in his gloved fist a fencepost stopping the Dagger’s cut the Chariot, stretched forward in a lunge, chest heaving, T-shirt dark with sweat, sunglasses shining in the streetlight. Straightening as the Dagger steps back. Swinging his sword around to point at the Dagger, leaning back a little, off-hand tucked against his chest. The Dagger taking another step back, and another. “I,” he says.

“Oh, no,” says the Chariot. “Don’t run.”

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, writer unknown, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, ©1975 the J.R.R. Tolkien Estate, Ltd.