Back onto his horse he clambered,
The headless knight, with head in hand.
Up he raised it, like a lantern.
Blood trickled out like hourglass sand.
Then as the court stood silent, staring,
The red eyes opened, red mouth moaned:
"I await you Gawain, on the New Year.
Come before the set of moon."
"And when you come, do you remember
The promise that you swore tonight:
To take one blow without resisting
To take one blow without a fight.
"This is my game, which none have equaled,
This is my test, which none have passed.
Seek me out on New Year's morning
And bare your neck to my bright axe."
The horse reared up then, scattering rushes
The horse cried out, and wheeled to go.
Hard hoofs rang out across the forecourt
And echoed through the falling snow.
As echoes died, there fell a silence --
Nothing human moved or spoke
Though the hounds were hackled, whimpering
And hawks went tumbling through the smoke.
Then suddenly there started something
That sometimes follows shock or pain --
The knights and ladies started laughing --
It pattered through the hall like rain.
And Gawain laughed too, spattered, shaking,
Laughed although he’d seen his doom --
To live his life out as a coward,
Or die beneath the new year’s moon.
Come then, cousin, said King Arthur,
Put that bloody axe aside.
Come eat and drink, you’ve done a wonder --
Come and sit here at my side.
So the minstrels started playing
So the midnight feast resumed.
In face of death we must keep dancing
Make merry in the face of doom.
The axe they hung in place of honour,
Right behind the king’s high seat.
They hung a banner from its handle
Stitched hounds and harts and horsemen fleet.
How quick the music seemed to Gawain,
How quickly did the fire flare.
Each second now did he keep note of:
He counted them like beads at prayer.
The night went on, the snow kept falling
The darkness faded towards the dawn.
At the king's side Gawain nodded
Above his head, the axehead shone.