Part of the Travellers’ Tale series, included in Travellers’ Tales: collected short stories
After the disappearance of his lover, Jack, Welsh gypsy Gwyn cares little for his own life…so much so that he’s prepared to wager his very soul on a game of cards.
Gwyn might be a careless gambler, but when he learns the stakes are even higher than he could have imagined, he’s prepared to do anything to win back his mate. In the strange world of The Green Man’s castle, a series of challenges await Gwyn, and failure will carry the ultimate penalty.
© M. King 2009
When they finally got back to camp, the children were playing under their grandmother’s watchful eye, while Aunt Maggie cleaned her collection of fine china figurines. Alone among her possessions for having no use besides decoration, Maggie’s china was a source of great pride and, once they got to Shrewsbury, she would waste no time in searching for the newest, most elaborate addition she could find. A rosy-frocked shepherdess, perhaps, decked with porcelain curls and ribbons. Gwyn didn’t see the attraction, and he tried to excuse himself, mind already on his first pint of the day.
His grandmother looked up from her indulgent supervision of the children, mouth twisted in disapproval.
“Early tonight, boy. You’ll not be getting yourself into trouble, will you?”
“’Course not, Gran.”
“Hm. Mattie, would you go with him?”
Gwyn glanced at Uncle Matthew, surprised. “What? I don’t need—”
Matthew tore his gaze from the wagon, where Maggie stood beside the steps, rubbing a china donkey with a strip of good cotton, torn, by the look of it, from one of her best petticoats. He blew out a long breath.
“I could keep a watch on him, Mother. Just to make sure he comes to no harm, mind. Gwyn’s old enough to take care of himself.”
The old woman smiled, and Gwyn knew it would be pointless to argue.
An hour later, he and Matthew made their way down to the King’s Head Inn. Just like every other pub, every other town, every other night, the same shadows lengthened out into the coming dark, the same warm glow of gas-lights, and the same genial hubbub. Gwyn could even identify the same men leaning up against the bar. Oh, they were different individuals, but the types remained constant. Wiry-whiskered old men with silver hair and bright blue eyes, hefty lads with slow wits and fat, red cheeks, and rafts of working men, weighted down with the dust and fatigue of their weeks. Over by the door, stood the spitting image of the butcher’s apprentice from the last village and—at a table beneath a set of handing horse brasses—a man who could have been the blacksmith’s brother. Gwyn smiled to himself, finding something comforting about all this familiarity, and then followed Matthew to the bar.
The evening wore on, and the distrustful air with which they’d first been greeted—as always—warmed to amiable tolerance, if not acceptance. Gwyn’s challenge of a card game brought hoots of laughter and a few cocky souls who thought they could take him. Three hands on, the mood had grown fiercer, with half the pub cheering on the local boys, and the other half taking bets on the outcome.
“Two pair,” Gwyn declared and reached for the pot.
His opponents, thoroughly trounced, tossed down their hands in disgust, and Gwyn caught Matthew’s eye across the bar. He grinned.
“Now then, lads…why don’t I give you a chance to win something back, eh? No goin’ home to the missus with empty pockets tonight!”
Matthew didn’t look pleased, but Gwyn ignored him, too comfortably settled into his stride. He knew his element, and he knew just how far he could push it. And, while the cards stayed hot and he stayed lucky, what harm could there possibly be in that?
“I’ll play you, boy.”
The voice seemed to come from the heart of the crowd of assembled drinkers, and yet also right at Gwyn’s elbow. He almost turned in his seat, expecting to find the speaker there, and the uncertainty wavered for a second in his voice. “Who’s that, then?”
A man stepped forward; not one Gwyn had seen in here when they arrived, and he would have noticed him, that was certain. Tall, his broad shoulders covered by a long, dark green cloak, fastened with a silver ring, though his body tapered, slim in the waist and hips. He was built like a rich man, formed by sport and leisure rather than labour and graft, and he dressed like nothing Gwyn had ever seen. It addition to the green cloak, a green shirt and waistcoat matched his green breeches, the waistcoat embroidered with a motif of birds and vines, picked out in darker thread over a light green ground.
His chestnut hair hung just below his ears, and his dark skin—an olive tone that spoke of foreign climes—looked ill-shaven. Yet his appearance shook Gwyn right to his core, flooding every nerve with the awareness of his beauty. A man not just truly handsome, but…sensuous? Yes. The way he moved to the table and pulled out a chair vacated by another player convinced Gwyn of that. He swallowed hard. The stranger had not yet once withdrawn his gaze from Gwyn’s, and his eyes were dark enough to eat up the world.
“Deal the cards, boy. If you’ll play me?”
Gwyn did as he was told, vaguely aware of Matthew shaking his head, but not quite sure why. After all, whatever could be wrong with this?
The Green Man is inspired by the traditional tale, The Green Man of No-Man’s Land, recorded by Dr. John Sampson.
Keywords: gay, glbt, lgbt, m/m, manlove, romance, gay fiction, travellers’ tales, romany, romani, romanichal, gypsy, travelers, paranormal, speculative fiction,