The narrator states that some people will have “fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done,” some will only have wooden crosses, and some will have nothing. It is possible the giant’s cairn was erected as a memorial to a tragic loss of innocent lives—there aren’t many other reasons for it to exist. The narrator is sure Axl is baffled by the sudden view of the giant’s cairn. The goat begins struggling to get away, although it soon stops, prompting Beatrice to ask if the mist makes goats forget, too.
The giant’s cairn was erected by someone who wished to commemorate the truth about what happened in the past, but knew they could not do it where just anyone could see it because it would lead to them asking questions and might make it easier for them to figure out just why the cairn was built.
Sir Gawain looks out at the landscape while Axl and Beatrice struggle to tie up the goat. Sir Gawain turns around and says, “I see them below,” noting that there’s “nothing now to turn them.” Axl asks who Sir Gawain is talking about and learns that it’s Wistan and Edwin. Beatrice is excited that they are coming to help, but Sir Gawain becomes uneasy and asks Axl if the still thinks they have “gather[ed] here in this forsaken spot as comrades.” Sir Gawain walks to Axl and asks if they hadn’t parted ways years ago, but when he sees Beatrice following, he tells her to go rest and leave the goat with him. Watching her walk back to the giant’s cairn, Axl feels “distinct shadows of anger and bitterness” and wonders if it was her who left him alone once. He also feels “both memory and anger growing firmer” as he looks at Beatrice. When he looks at Sir Gawain, Axl sees tenderness in his eyes as he watches Beatrice.
Sir Gawain’s observation that there is “nothing now” that will send Wistan and Edwin back is the moment that he truly accepts the inevitable: he and Wistan, who is much younger and stronger, will duel over the life of Querig. The difference between how Axl feels looking at Beatrice in this moment and how Sir Gawain feels could indicate that Gawain had cared for Beatrice in the past and that she is possibly the beautiful woman Gawain mentions dreaming about when he thinks about his regret over not having a romantic partner. This would also mean that Gawain and Beatrice had had an affair, which could account for Axl’s feelings of anger while he and Gawain sit together and watch Beatrice. Axl’s spontaneous anger also suggests that he was mistaken in thinking he wronged her, which forces him to the confront the question of whether his love for her can actually withstand remembering the truth if she is the one who betrayed their marriage. The answer is perhaps found in the fact that, instead of confidently being able to say he will always love her, Axl actually feels “anger growing firmer,” indicating that he would struggle to keep the same promise he insisted Beatrice make earlier to always keep the love she feels for him in the moment alive even when their bad memories return.
Sir Gawain asks if it’s not possible that Axl’s decision “wasn’t the more godly,” leaving Arthur and investing himself in his marriage to Beatrice. Sir Gawain wonders if it wouldn’t have been better for him to make the same choice as Axl because there have been days when he’s longed for a “kind shadow” to follow him. Sir Gawain walks away, leaving Axl to finish driving the stake and tying the goat to it.
While Sir Gawain has undoubtedly regretted that he had no romantic partner to pass his days with, his description of choosing to leave Arthur as “more godly” shows that he recognizes that some of the things Arthur asked the knights to do were wrong or immoral and it may have actually been ungodly to stick by Arthur after everything.
Axl goes to Beatrice and says that the goat is secure and that he is ready to leave when she is, but Beatrice is reluctant to enter the forest again. Suddenly Sir Gawain calls out, “They’ll soon be upon us!” Axl tells Beatrice they should go to him. Sir Gawain tells him the “Saxon warrior” will be there soon and then tells Axl that he remembers the night Axl cursed at Arthur in front of the other knights, who had kept their heads lowered. Sir Gawain asks Axl if he remembers this and Axl says he doesn’t. Sir Gawain explains that he and the rest of the knights feared for Axl’s safety, but Arthur had used “gentle words” and excused him. Although Sir Gawain “shared something of [Axl’s] anger,” he criticizes Axl’s choice to yell at Arthur after he won a battle.
As the time when he will have to face Wistan draws closer, Sir Gawain is evidently more anxious to speak plainly with Axl about what happened between them and Arthur. The fact that Axl stood up to Arthur is a testament to his strength of character and unwillingness to show deference to someone whom he sees as immoral or wrong. Unlike Sir Gawain, Axl was not a “yes man” for Arthur. Still, Sir Gawain persists in portraying King Arthur in a positive light out of a continued sense of duty.
Sir Gawain notes that there had been a shift in what they fought for during the war: “Where once we fought for land and God, we now fought to avenge fallen comrades,” and children were growing up only knowing war. Axl remembers “God himself betrayed” by Arthur’s betrayal of a treaty that Axl had brokered. Sir Gawain says that he had initially agreed with Axl but changed his mind when he saw how peace was restored. Axl says he doesn’t want these memories, but only those of his “dear wife,” and asks to borrow Sir Gawain’s horse to get down the mountain. Sir Gawain, appalled, refuses. Beatrice expresses interest in waiting to see if Wistan will slay Querig.
Although Sir Gawain prides himself on his sense of honor and justice, his description of the reasons for continuing the war “to avenge fallen comrades” implies that honor had fallen by the wayside as more and more people gave up their humanity and compassion in the quest for revenge. War without honor had turned barbaric, which, in Sir Gawain’s eyes, meant it was better to tell a great lie to achieve peace rather than to keep telling the truth and continue fighting in a war that was ruining the entire country.
Axl continues trying to get Sir Gawain to let him borrow the horse while Beatrice questions whether Axl really wants to see the dragon slain and the mist lifted, and Sir Gawain asks if Axl thinks that no “tender flower or two” had tempted Gawain to make the same choice Axl did. He tries to justify King Arthur’s actions by saying ordinary people “can only watch and wonder” at the “acts of a great king.” The three shout over each other until the warrior and Saxon boy arrive and shout over them. Everyone falls silent and looks at the warrior and boy.
Axl wants to get Beatrice far away because, by doing so, he might delay the moment at which they both remember the past, which he now accepts will compromise their future. Sir Gawain, by saying they “can only watch and wonder” at King Arthur’s decisions, continues trying to convince Axl that all that had been done during the war was done for a higher purpose and so he cannot be condemned for his part in it, nor can the misunderstood Arthur.
Wistan walks forward, laughing at the sight of Axl and Beatrice, and asks why they are on the mountain instead of with their son. Beatrice explains that they want to see Querig slain and that they brought a poisoned goat. Edwin strains against the ropes Wistan tied him with and Wistan decides to tether him next to the goat. As Wistan does this, Sir Gawain keeps a close eye on him, drawing out his sword and watching until Wistan turns around. Edwin begins shouting about a bandit’s camp up ahead before slumping to the ground and falling silent.
By pulling out his sword, Sir Gawain is sending a clear message to Wistan that he is ready to fight and that Wistan will have to get through Sir Gawain to get to Querig. This also gives Sir Gawain the opportunity to size Wistan up and plan how he wants to approach their now unavoidable duel.
Axl asks that there be “no more disguises between us” and asks Sir Gawain if he is the dragon’s protector, which Sir Gawain confirms is true. Wistan asks if Querig is close and Sir Gawain says that this is true, as well. Beatrice asks how Sir Gawain came to be the protector of Querig and Wistan says he’d like to hear the story, too. Sir Gawain reluctantly agrees to lead them all to the pit Querig stays in.
Axl’s request to do away with “disguises” shows that he is ready to hear the truth, but he wants to know the whole truth. This, Sir Gawain knows, is likely his final opportunity to share his side of the story.
As they walk on, Beatrice tells Axl she’s beginning to think she’s “the one to fear most the mist’s clearing” and is afraid she betrayed Axl somehow in the past. Still, she is determined to “see freely the path [they’ve] come together,” no matter how light or dark it is. Axl is struck by a sense that he was the one waiting alone in their room and wonders if Beatrice is right.
Despite their fears, both Axl and Beatrice are determined to know the whole truth of their marriage rather than live in doubt as to who wronged who, how, and why. Beatrice’s desire to “see freely the path” that brought them to this point shows that she now wants to be able to judge for herself whether their marriage and the love they have is strong and genuine.
Sir Gawain indicates that they are close, and the group silently walks on until Sir Gawain asks Wistan if he won’t reconsider his mission there. Wistan refuses, so they continue on quietly. Sir Gawain leads them to a pile of rocks from which they can look down and see Querig, who is sleeping and looks as if she is aging and fragile. Beatrice says that the dragon looks “no more than a fleshy thread” and Sir Gawain agrees but says that as “long as she’s breath left, she does her duty.” Axl says he remembers Merlin’s work and calls it “dark.” Sir Gawain rejects this idea and points out that, because of Merlin’s work, Saxons and Britons live side by side in peace.
Sir Gawain’s defense of Merlin against Axl’s accusation that Merlin was dark provides further evidence of Sir Gawain’s adamant belief that no price is too high if it achieves peace. This, of course, could be due to the fact that only Sir Gawain can truly say he remembers everything from the war, including the mutual and insurmountable hatred between Saxons and Britons that he believed would only grow and get worse if it were allowed to continue.
Sir Gawain begs Wistan to think about “what might be awoken across this land” if he kills Querig and to just leave. Wistan questions what kind of god “wishes wrongs to go forgotten and unpunished.” Sir Gawain admits the justice of this question and acknowledges that his god “looks uneasily” on what was done that day, but suggests that allowing Querig to finish out her life (which won’t last much longer) because that might give time for “old wounds to heal for ever.” Wistan argues that this is “foolishness” and asks how Sir Gawain can think a “peace [will] hold for ever built on slaughter and magician’s trickery.” Wistan says he sees “how devoutly” Sir Gawain wants the past to be forgotten, but refuses to give in. Wistan asks Sir Gawain to leave, but the knight refuses and they prepare to duel.
Wistan’s youthful idealism means he values truth over all else. Sir Gawain’s age and greater experience, however, have shown him that there are times when letting the truth be known is not worth the consequences. In this case, the truth will lead to war: a bloodier, more serious war in which Britons will be targeted and slaughtered for the actions of their parents and grandparents. All Wistan sees in this argument, however, is Sir Gawain’s desire that his own reputation not be sullied by the truth coming out that Arthur had broken the treaty and Sir Gawain had helped cover it up.
Sir Gawain asks Axl to use his “fine eloquence” to help him and Wistan leave the place as friends, but Axl says he and Beatrice are there to see the dragon slain and won’t help Sir Gawain if he tries to stop it. Sir Gawain says he understands and asks if, in the event that he is slain, they would be willing to take Horace and find him “a fine green meadow where he may eat to his heart’s content and think of old days.” Axl agrees to this. Wistan, too, asks a favor: that if he is slain, Axl and Beatrice will take Edwin to a safe village. Axl agrees to this, as well. As the two men draw their swords and prepare to fight, Beatrice looks away and leaves Axl to watch. Wistan and Sir Gawain duel as Axl looks on, remembering how to do some of the moves they are doing. The duel is close, but Wistan defeats Sir Gawain after a hard fight.
Sir Gawain’s final bid to stop the inevitable reveals his fear of dying. Sir Gawain knows that he does not stand a chance against Wistan unless Axl is able to help them both find common ground. However, Axl is unwilling to do this because he does not want to disappoint Beatrice, who is still determined to watch Querig be slain and get her memories back.
Wistan stands over Sir Gawain’s body until Axl calls down, “Bravo, sir,” and tells him that nothing stands between him and killing the dragon. Wistan walks by Axl and Beatrice to look down at Querig. Beatrice asks him to hurry and slay the dragon, but Wistan is staring at Axl again. Wistan asks Axl if he is the “gentle Briton” that he remembers from his childhood and had tried to “keep innocents beyond the reach of war.” Axl says that if this was him, he only remembers it “through the haze” of the mist. Wistan thanks him for his honesty and Axl requests some honesty in return before asking if Wistan would want to seek vengeance on the man he remembers. Wistan says that he has dreamed of revenge, but now realizes that the man did his best. Wistan would ask him to go in peace if he were to see him, even though “peace now can’t hold for long.”
Now that nothing stands between Wistan and successfully killing Querig, he begins to show signs of regret. Even though Wistan had made Edwin promise to always hate Britons, Wistan himself is finding it difficult to hate Axl and Beatrice, particularly because he remembers the good that Axl tried to do during the war. Axl, too, realizes that because he is a Briton, he will soon be the target of hatred and violence. Without directly saying so, Axl looks to Wistan for some reassurance that both he and Beatrice are not in danger of being killed by him even though Axl knows Wistan can’t guarantee their safety beyond that.
Wistan descends into the pit without waking up Querig and only examines her for a few moments before cutting off the dragon’s head. Axl and Beatrice note that it’s over, but Axl wants to stay and ask Wistan something. When Wistan gets out of the pit, he looks “overwhelmed and not in the least triumphant.” Beatrice asks him why he looks “so despondent” and Wistan says he doesn’t rightfully know, but thinks that he’s “been too long among you Britons,” having admired and despised them every step of the way. Now that his mission is done, Wistan struggles to wrap his mind around what he’s done and what the future holds. Beatrice asks what he means and Wistan says that “justice and vengeance await” and the Saxons are planning a conquest, made possible by the returning memories of Saxons all over the country who will want revenge for past wrongs.
Despite Wistan’s growing sense that killing Querig might do more harm than good, he does it anyway. Once he does and it cannot be undone, the full force of what Sir Gawain had tried to tell him about the hatred that would be unleashed hits him, forcing Wistan to realize that he had grown closer and seen more good in the Britons than he had been willing to admit. Although he has succeeded in his mission, Wistan fears that he has committed a greater error than that which Arthur committed when he broke the treaty with the Saxons.
Axl tells Beatrice that Wistan is right and observes that while they had longed for the dragon’s death for the sake of their personal memories, they had failed to consider “what old hatreds will loosen across the land now.” Wistan agrees and says, “The giant, once well buried, now stirs.” Once that giant rises, all the friendships and relationships between Saxons and Britons will be torn asunder and violence will break out. Wistan notes that this vengeance, for the Saxons, will be “justly served,” but he is ashamed to say that part of him “turns from the flames of hatred.” Axl and Beatrice prepare to leave, but before they walk away Wistan tells them to “ride fast from these parts” to escape the coming violence, and to untie Edwin and send him over.
Similarly, Axl and Beatrice realize they had been short-sighted in their desire to get their memories back at any cost. The cost, as it turns out, is their safety and any chance that their lives would simply pick up where they left off. Meanwhile, Wistan undergoes a rapid change, even advising Axl and Beatrice to leave the country. This goes against his earlier belief that all Britons are inherently bad and deserve death, no matter how kind they may seem. This change of heart will presumably make it difficult for Wistan to continue moving forward as a warrior.