Do the knights feel railroaded? They deserve to, for they were. But Uther is the king, after all, and considering that they could have been executed for their part in this, they also ought to feel fortunate.
Oh yeah, it was that kind of year. Lots of heavily scripted action, which can sometimes be fun, and sometimes--as in this year--it's there to set up things for later on and you just have to sort of power down, get through it, and see how well the PCs hold up to the beating. At this point, I don't know about Des, but I'm definitely looking forward to the Anarchy Phase when things bust wide open and the PCs suddenly hold their destiny in their hands, for better or for worse. But that's neither here nor there at the moment; we've got another year to chronicle. Let's begin back at the beginning.
We actually played through this year right after wrapping up the previous year, which was appropriate since there was some continuity of narrative. As the year 491 had drawn to a close, Sir Herringdale was still in Cornwall, stationed at Tintagel with his wife and family. As the winter snows began to melt, our hero packed up his belongings and began looking forward to returning home to Broughton Manor. Would that it could be that easy.
Instead, he received word that there was to be another wedding, or rather a double wedding, in Cornwall, this time at Castle Terrabil. So although Herringdale was able to bid a not-so-fond farewell to Tintagel, he was to remain in Cornwall for the time being. So it goes.
Arriving at Terrabil, he found a repeat of the previous year's royal wedding. King Uther and his new Queen had arranged marriages for Igraine's two eldest daughters. Margawse was to be married to King Lot of Lothian and Elaine was to go to Lot's loyal vassal, Nentres of Garloth. Queen Igraine herself was with child, as was Earl Roderick's wife, Countess Ellen. All of the assembled nobility, the King not the least of them, were talking of a time of rebirth, renewal, and peace. (This all rather conveniently ignored the growing Saxon threat in the south and Uther's obstinate refusal to deal with it, but people can be like that sometimes, can't they?)
The wedding was another lavish, costly affair. King Uther gave the brides away himself, and summed up the feelings of most of the assembled nobility when, in a short speech before the ceremony, he intoned that it was "time to let the people have peace" and that it was "a time for families." The Queen, looking like she was about set to go into labor any minute, looked on with an official expression of approval and happiness for her daughters.
After the ceremony, during a lull in the feasting, Sir Herringdale was approached by Earl Roderick, who had a proposition: there was still need of knights to garrison Cornwall's castles and patrol the lands. Many knights formerly loyal to Gorlas had gone rogue, including Sir Cynrain, Herringdale's sworn enemy. The lands needed extra patrols to keep these rogue knights in check; if Sir Herringdale would serve out his 60 days of vassalage here in Cornwall immediately, Earl Roderick would release him to return home and look to his own lands for the rest of the year. It was a deal hard to turn down, and Herringdale accepted.
As he drew closer, he quickly recognized the man: the bushy beard, long hair, and wire-rim spectacles that were the hallmarks of none other than Merlin the Magician.
"Greetings, Sir Knight. You have served me before. I need your services again. Follow me."
With that, and without waiting for a reply or so much as a backwards glance, Merlin began hiking off into the woods. Shrugging, Herringdale followed behind, still mounted. (This was the first decision point that could have prevented events later in the year; had Herringdale decided not to follow, his later troubles would have been avoided. Such are the risks one runs when dealing with wizards.) The path Merlin led him down was little more than a game trail and eventually came out into a clearing.
"Wait here. Remain on your horse. I have important business to attend to, and when I return I may need protection."
He then plunged off deeper into the woods, disappearing into a patch of thick undergrowth.
Minutes passed by. Then a half an hour. Then an hour. Then an hour more. (Again, Herringdale could have chose to give up and ride away, but he didn't. Pendragon adventures often do this, echoing a convention of folk tales--the hero is given several opportunities to turn away from their path before the full consequences can be seen or appreciated. And, much like Herringdale here, they usually don't...)
Herringdale was growing restless and sore in his saddle, and his warhorse Smuggy was fidgeting nervously from the lack of activity. Herringdale was just giving his horse a reassuring pat on the flank when (failing an Awareness roll) he was surprised by Merlin's sudden reemergence into the clearing. The wizard seemed to be carrying something like a small bundle, but it was unclear what it might be precisely. He also seemed a bit flushed, like he'd been running, although he was walking now (albeit speedily). As he made a beeline through the clearing he merely said to Herringdale, "Delay them." Then he was gone.
Herringdale drew his sword as he heard the sound of cursing, shouting, and clanking metal drawing nearer. By this point he could also hear their shouts: "Merlin! Come back here you traitor! Where are you?" Then they were emerging into the clearing, a half-dozen armed knights. Herringdale immediately recognized several coats of arms: they were Uther's men! With a jolt, he recognized the leader as Sir Brastias, Uther's right-hand man and most respected knight in the realm.
"Oi! You! Where is Merlin? Where is that unmanly dog?" shouted Brastias as his men fanned out and began searching the clearing.
"What is going on here?" Herringdale demanded. "What are you doing here and why do you seek for Merlin?"
"Merlin has kidnapped the King's own infant son, you idiot, and you would delay me with small talk? The King will hear of this! Now where did he go?"
Herringdale, quite incensed at Brastias' curt words, pointed the knights in a direction completely different from the way Merlin went and watched them crash back into the undergrowth. They didn't invite him along and he didn't want to go anyway. Resheathing his sword, he turned around and began riding back to Terrabil; he had reports to give.
(And there was the third opportunity come and gone; Herringdale could have set the knights on Merlin's trail, even volunteered to follow along, but between Brastias' harsh language and Herringdale's growing dissatisfaction with the Pendragon, he chose to aid Merlin instead.)
Once back at the castle, he dictated a letter to Earl Roderick explaining what had happened (although leaving out the part about giving false information). He then returned to his normal business, giving the episode little further thought. What was occupying Herringdale's mind more and more, actually, was Sir Cynrain. The sooner that treacherous robber-knight was dead, the sooner Herringdale would breathe easier. With two weeks left before heading home, he resolved to ride out and see if he could find some clues to Cynrain's whereabouts.
In a series of one-man "raids," Herringdale ventured across Cornwall, sometimes by the main roads, other times by the back trails, searching for any word of Cynrain's whereabouts (and dodging angry local knights who objected to a foreigner riding through their lands uninvited). But the locals either didn't know or weren't telling, and soon Herringdale gave his search up for a lost cause. Cynrain would not be ridden to ground this year, it seemed.
Just as well, for at long last the time came to leave Cornwall behind. Away from home for nearly two years, Herringdale was anxious to see the Salisbury Plain, Sarum Castle, and Broughton Hall once again. After two weeks' journey, he caught sight of Stonehenge and knew he was almost home. As it was noon and the sun was out and the spring air was warm and refreshing, Herringdale decided to stop off at the Henge and pay his respects once more to Prince Madoc.
As he stood atop the hill near the gravesite in silent meditation, he caught sight of two horsemen approaching. One was flying a penant which he soon made out: it was Marshall Elad and his squire! Smiling broadly, Herringdale saluted Sir Elad as he approached. Elad dismounted and clapped Herringdale on the shoulder, welcoming him home. But his smile quickly faded.
The news hit Herringdale like a thunderclap. Treason! For what?
There was no roleplaying required here--Des was just as outraged and gave me plenty of dirty looks. She even made a "choo choo" noise at one point. Did I mention I'm looking forward to a time when she'll have no one to blame but herself for any messes she gets into?
At any rate, as the GPC pointed out, the ensuing treason trial was pretty railroady, but by design. Des certainly felt like she'd been swept up in events far beyond her control, but this is what comes of moving into the higher circles of power and drawing the attention of those who have the resources to back up their ire with genuine consequences. Even Herringdale's defense was largely left in the hands of others; Marshall Elad and Bishop Roger spoke on his behalf at the trial, and a strange little Benedictine known as Father Dewi (called The Waterman for his abstinence from alcohol), after conducting a brief interview with Sir Herringdale before the trial, also spoke on his behalf, claiming he was clearly bewitched by Merlin.
After meeting with Sir Elad, Herringdale followed the Marshall back to Vagon Castle, where he met with Bishop Roger and, later, Father Dewi. Two kind of hilarious events occurred during the trial preparation. Brastias was accusing Herringdale of deliberately giving false information to throw the King's men off of Merlin's trail. When Elad asked Herringdale if this were true, I had Des make an opposed Honest/Deceitful roll; she Critted her Honest! Sir Herringdale spilled the beans and Elad and Bishop Roger exchanged grim looks. It was at this point that they excused themselves and sent for Father Dewi, as they suspected some kind of enchantment was at work.
Des then nearly signed her own death warrant when she attempted to walk out on Father Dewi, being frankly sick of all the interviewing, accusations, and so forth and just wanting to get home. Fortunately, she relented at the last minute and submitted to an interview with The Waterman, who would go on to basically save Herringdale's life (towards his own ends, of course) at the trial.
Des also had a chance to speak on her own behalf during the treason trial, and raised a convincing argument on the basis of Sir Herringdale's Honor (one of his most notable traits) while also hinting at possible bewitchment. He noted his key role in recovering Excalibur for the King, and the service he had rendered him since then, culminating in the slaying of the "treacherous" Duke Gorlas. And despite the railroading, there were some tense moments, particularly when, during a lull in the proceedings, Queen Igraine (dressed in mourning black for her missing child) lent in to loudly whisper in Uther's ear, "They stole my baby. Kill him." To which Uther replied, "Soon enough my dear. We must follow proper procedure first." Des was really sweating it at that point, I can tell you!
As the testimony of Father Dewi and Herringdale's appeal to his honor (backed up by Sir Elad) began to sway Uther, however, opinion began to turn against Merlin instead. It came out that Herringdale wasn't the only knight Brastias had encountered, and some had even brandished arms against the King's men--Merlin obviously had a whole host of knights he had put under ensorcellment, and in the end Uther proclaimed them all innocent, sentencing them to nothing more than a period of penance and spiritual purification at the hands of Archbishop Dubricus. Father Dewi saw his chance and launched an impassioned plea for Uther to cast Merlin, the known son of a demon, from the realm, which the King duly did.
And so it was that, through no fault or action of his own, Sir Herringdale acquired another sobriquet, that of "the knight who condemned Merlin."
With the trial over and his name cleared, at long last Sir Herringdale returned to his manor and enjoyed some peace and quiet for once. This year was a good harvest, and he had some money saved up, so he constructed a stone watchtower for his manor, completing its fortification scheme. He also built a small church on the manor grounds, large enough for 300 parishioners; Sir Herringdale, as he grows older, is showing increasing tendencies towards piety and spirituality. Sadly, the annual horse survival roll indicated that Smuggy had passed away this year! Fortunately, Herringdale had a second charger taken as plunder after the Battle of Lindsey; dubbed Smuggy II, it stands ready to do its master proud in coming battles. Otherwise, things were fairly quiet for once.
And that just about wrapped things up for the year. I was left with a couple priorities as we move into the final years of Uther's reign. First, I want to give some more thought to Sir Cynrain. Truth be told, he was a spontaneous addition that came about through the Battle of Terrabil (I thought, "Hmm, it would be neat to bring back that knight who knocked Herringdale off his horse.") What role he'll have to play in the future campaign has yet to be seen, but rest assured we haven't heard the last of him.
(One great thing about Pendragon's epic scope is that you can really let villains and rivals develop over time. They can go away for a few years til the players forget about them, then pop up when least expected. I had lots of mischievous GM fun bringing back a recurring villain, the witch Elidia, in such a way during our 2007-2008 Pendragon campaign.)
Also, Des is on my case to introduce a new love interest for Herringdale. She still mourns for Jordans' passing, but doesn't want her character to martyr his love life over it. I'll have to give this some thought; I don't want to just do "Jordans II" and bring in another hottie knight. Hmmm. Maybe Cynrain? That would be some angry love right there. To take a line from Anchorman, it might be a situation like: "From deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But goddammit, do I respect you!" We'll see, we'll see.
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