Friday, February 19, 2010

[Solo GPC] 494: On His Majesty's Secret Service

After last year's break from serving as Earl Roderick's dogsbody, we were back to scripted events in the GPC. King Uther, still stricken with a wasting illness (and--according to whispered rumors--calling for Merlin in his delirium) had, during one of his more lucid moments, proclaimed that Logres should be seeking alliances with other powerful kingdoms. Earl Roderick's embassy to Malahaut the previous year had failed. This year, the Earl selected Sir Herringdale, one of his most renowned knights, to travel as Royal Ambassador to the Kingdom of Estregales. There, it was said, King Canan had done what no other Cambrian king had managed: through political maneuvering and military might, he had forged a strong alliance between the lowland lords and the mountain chieftains.

With a letter from the King in his cloak, Herringdale set out from Sarum in the summer with a small escort of mounted sergeants. His journey through Somerset and on to Gloucester was mostly by way of the King's Road and passed without incident. Upon arriving in Gloucester, Herringdale was conveyed to the Duke's court, where he was warmly received. The old Duke announced that he would send Herringdale along with an escort in the form of his two sons, the Twin Bannerets of Glevum. Although identical in appearance, this pair dressed in contrasting colors, one wearing green, the other red. Their personalities would prove contrasting as well.

Several uncomfortable days were passed with Herringdale being subjected to the twins' constant bickering. Fortunately, they only accompanied our hero as far as Carlion, where the group met up with an acquaintance from Herringdale's past: Sir Alain de Carlion (pictured right).

You'll recall Sir Alain, of course, from the 491 entry, when Herringdale met him while the two were serving garrison duty at Tintagel and Herringdale managed to crit his Gaming roll, impressing Sir Alain with his tactical skill. Sir Alain greeted Herringdale warmly, even teasing him about the recent treason charges. Clearly familiar with the Twin Bannerets, he gave them a coolly courteous dismissal. The Green Banneret turned to Herringdale.

"It was a pleasure escorting you, sir, and I hope we will meet again soon," he said.

"What are you talking about?" the Red Banneret spat. "He was as interesting as cabbage soup, and I hope to never see the likes of him again!"

"Why do you always do this?" the Green Banneret retorted. "Now you've insulted a knight and embarrassed yourself and father!"

"Better to tell the plain truth than hide behind fancy words!"

Sir Alain motioned for Herringdale to follow him and they left the Twin Bannerets bickering at the city gate. Carlion was an old Roman town and Herringdale admired its architecture and civic planning, even if it was evident that nearly half the buildings stood empty and even the occupied dwellings were in serious need of repair and renovation.

Taking him to the old Roman fortress that served as King Nanteleod's castle, Sir Alain led Herringdale to a small private chamber where a bed and water basin waited.

"Take your time to freshen up and I will present you to the King."

Herringdale did so and in a short time he found himself standing before King Nanteleod, a dark-haired man with a deep, inquisitive gaze. Over a modest dinner, the King questioned Herringdale about his mission, spoke well of Countess Ellen, whom he knew from earlier, more carefree days, and listened as Herringdale recounted some of his famous adventures and battles.

As he came upon the subject of the Battle of Lindsey and the taking of the Saxon battle standard, however, Herringdale began to feel himself choking up. He couldn't help but think of Sir Jordans. Taking a big drink from his goblet, he plunged ahead, singing Jordans' praises effusively, almost to the point of awkwardness. King Nanteleod replied simply that it was tragic to lose a beloved brother in arms, and Sir Alain stood, raising his goblet. "To Sir Jordans," he said, and the assembled hall all raised their cups in salute. It was a touching scene, and Des even got a little choked up in real life.

We left things off there for the evening and picked up again the next night. Sir Alain was assigned to escort Sir Herringdale on to the Estregales border. En route they passed by a band of scruffy-looking loiterers, but neither group bothered the other. In the next village, the local priest spoke of bandit troubles in the region and Sir Herringdale surmised they'd ridden past just such a group who had decided not to mess with two knights and a half-dozen mounted men-at-arms. No matter, there was pressing business at hand.

Passing through Cardiff, Newcastle, and Kynke Kynnedonne, soon the group reached Estregales. At this point, Sir Alain took his leave and Herringdale met with a group of border guards who escorted him on to Carmarthen. Word was sent and Herringdale waited for the go-ahead, which was received in short order. From there, it was a three-day journey to Pembroke, where King Canan resided.

Arriving at Pembroke Castle, Herringdale was delighted to find a strange breed of hunting dog kept by the King--strange, stub-legged terriers that seemed constantly underfoot. He didn't have long to play with the dogs however, as he was soon ushered into King Canan's hall to give his report.

Herringdale presented his letter, and King Canan handed it to his steward, Sir Orcas, to read. It was a proposal from King Uther suggesting, in flowery, diplomatic tones, the formation of an alliance between Estregales and Logres for the purpose of mutual support and defense. King Canan stroked his beard as he listened, but his face remained inscrutable. He then interviewed Sir Herringdale, asking about the King's health and other polite points of conversation. He then announced there would be a feast that evening to welcome Uther's ambassador.

Despite the fact that we use the random Feast Tables from Tales of Mystic Tournaments, this was the third feast in a row that opened with hot eel patries; we decided this is clearly a Cambrian specialty! At the feast, Sir Herringdale was formally introduced to Sir Orcas, a polite but brusque knight who was to serve as liaison and contact during the duration of Herringdale's stay. He also caught the eye of a squire who was serving cuts of suckling pig to the assembled knights and noblemen. Passing his Chaste roll, Herringdale opted not to act on the squire's inviting glances.

The next day, Herringdale toured the castle grounds and spent some time with the Corgis. As the day wore on, he tracked down Sir Orcas. "As long as I'm waiting around for the King's reply, how about some hunting?" he asked. "A fine suggestion," Orcas replied. "I'll arrange for something tomorrow."

The next day, Herringdale was dressed and mounted up at the crack of dawn. He met up with Sir Orcas, who had brought two other noblemen: the King's sons, Sir Dirac and Squire Lak. Herringdale's heart leapt as he shook hands with Squire Lak--it was the youth who had been making eyes at him the night before! Good thing he hadn't tried any funny business; that could have been awkward indeed.

The four riders set off into the countryside, eventually making their way up into some rugged woodlands. As they rode, Dirac and Lak questioned Herringdale about his life as a knight in Uther's service. They listened raptly to his tales of bloody battles and strange encounters. Eventually, Herringdale picked up a trail. It was of a beast he did not recognize--it was obviously quite large and walked on hoofed feet. Eagerly, the hunters took off after the trail. At one point, Herringdale lost it, but Squire Lak was able to pick it up again. I then rolled two fumbles for Orcas and Dirac, so soon it was just Herringdale and Lak on the beast's trail. Then Herringdale spotted it through the trees: as big as a moose, the creature looked like a cross between a boar and a wildebeest. Atop its head were two great horns which seemed to move independently of each other, like an insect's antennae. It was a yale, a near-mythical creature and a great prize if they could land it.

Readying their spears, the two hunters charged. The yale reared, brandishing its horns. A furious battle ensued, with the two men jabbing their spears into the yale's side as it did its best to gore them with its fearsome horns. At one point it landed a blow on Herringdale's shield and the horn actually pierced the wood, nearly impaling Herringdale in the process. But finally the hunters triumphed, and with a great groan the yale fell over, mortally wounded. Herringdale lept down off his horse and delivered the coup de grace.

Lak, panting and sweaty and overflowing with excitement, took one of the yale's horns as a trophy. He then volunteered to ride back and fetch men to come and butcher the carcass. Herringdale sent him on his way, then took a seat on a mossy rock, regarding the felled beast. He felt a deep, moving sympathy for the creature, a kinship of shared experience. More and more, Herringdale found himself feeling like a hunted beast as all the things he held dear were taken from him. His family brought him little comfort, his one true love lay six feet below the ground.

Presently, his morose thoughts were interrupted by the sound of men approaching. Lak had fetched Orcas and Dirac along with several servants from the castle, and they had come to look at the body of the yale. Orcas cut the beast's other horn off and presented it to Herringdale as a trophy, then the men set to butchering. At dinner that night, Herringdale was called upon to relate the story of the hunt. For the first time, he actually managed to make his Orate roll! Apparently he's getting more confident in his old age.

A couple days later, while out for a ride with Orcas, Dirac, and a few other noblemen, Herringdale met up with a dirty chieftan from a mountain village. He was barefooted, rode his shaggy hill pony bareback, and spoke in an accent so thick, it might as well have been a foreign language. Apparently he was known to the other men, however, for they conversed a bit before the chieftan turned to Herringdale.

The chieftan seemed like he wanted something, but Herringdale couldn't make it out through the sing-song dialect. As the chieftan flashed Herringdale a gap-toothed grin, Sir Orcas turned and looked inquisitively. "Well, how about it?" he asked.

"Uh, sure!" said Herringdale, gaining a check in Reckless in the process. And that's how he unwittingly agreed to a horse race with the King of Ystrad Tyi. With a hefty -10 modifier to his Horsemanship imposed by the rocky terrain the race ran over, Herringdale didn't stand a chance. But he took his defeat with good grace, even when he found out that the loser had to pay the winner one libra's worth of treasure. Herringdale presented the hill chief with an exquisitely-crafted bridle, much to the king's delight.

A couple days later, Herringdale was awakened at dawn by the sound of commotion out in the courtyard--it seemed the king's household was packing up and moving! A knock at the door confirmed this, as Squire Lak informed Herringdale that they were moving out to Castle Tenby and he'd best gather his things and be ready to head out soon. At Tenby, Herringdale met with King Canan over dinner with the assembled court, where Canan apologized for keeping Herringdale waiting, but announced that he was favorably disposed to Uther's terms and would be making his final decision soon.

Soon after that the court relocated yet again, this time to Carmarthen. With so much time idling, Herringdale picked up skill checks in Singing and Laziness (Des's choices!), and spent his time in Carmarthen, the birthplace of Merlin, getting a penny tour from a local youth, who took him around to see all the sights of Merlin's formative years: the chapel he was baptized in, the shack he grew up in, the fountain where he performed his first healings.

Finally, King Canan seemed ready to make his final decision. He convened a feast of all the allied chieftains, kings, and nobles, and Herringdale was seated at the high table. During the course of the meal, he observed Sir Dirac hand his father a goblet; the King toasted his son and future heir, then drained the cup in one gulp. Seconds later, the King lurched forward, then fell back over his seat. His face turning livid blue, blood began running from his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears as he emitted a ghastly gurgling sound, then was still for ever more. King Canan was dead!

The hall was immediately plunged into chaos. Several nobles pointed out Sir Dirac--"He handed the king the poisoned cup!" Dirac looked like a deer caught in the headlights, his voice cracking as he vehemently denied the accusations. Herringdale was skeptical of the charges.

"Sire, who handed you the cup you gave to your father?" he asked.

"Why...Sir Orcas did!"

Herringdale looked to the steward, who was standing off to the side. Orcas' eyebrows arched in surprise. "Me? I did no such thing!"

"Unless Dirac brought the cup from the kitchens--and we know he didn't--someone must have given him that goblet," said Herringdale. "Who is in charge here?"

"It matters not!" shouted one of the chieftains. "With King Canan dead, I must return to my lands and raise an army in case of attack from my neighbors!"

Other noblemen also began rushing from the hall. The alliance King Canan had so carefully built was crumbling in an instant.

Sir Orcas approached Herringdale, several knights backing him up. "I think it's time you left, Ambassador. You can tell King Uther that his offer is not accepted," Orcas sneered.

Herringdale could see the writing on the wall, despite his reservations. He fled the hall, leaving poor Dirac to his fate. Mounting his horse, he rode out of Carmarthen with his squire and his sergeants. After several hours of riding through the dark, they made camp, then continued on in the morning.

In every town and village they passed through they were obliged to relate the tale of the death of King Canan. The news was greeted with despair and worry by the residents of Estregales, for they saw nothing but instability and infighting in the days ahead. Herringdale rode on, eventually crossing into the land of Escavalon.

Once in that land, he was escorted once again to meet with King Nanteleod. And again, he recounted the tale of King Canan's death as Nanteleod listened closely, watching Herringdale intently. After taking his report, the King told Herringdale that he'd have an escort to the borders, a knight of his household named Sir Rhys. "And once you reach the border, you'll escort Sir Rhys in turn to your lord, if that's agreeable."

And so Herringdale set out the next day with Sir Rhys, who was well outfitted and mounted atop a white courser. The two knights passed most of the journey quietly; Herringdale had much to occupy his thoughts. Arriving back in Sarum, he gave his report to Earl Roderick, who listened solemnly.

"This is ill news indeed," said the Earl. "The Saxons under King Octa have begun marching south. They are ravaging the Duchy of Lindsey as the lords shelter inside their castles. The loss of the northern armies could have been counter-balanced by the addition of Cambrian allies. Instead, we must fight on our own.

"So be it," Roderick said with a heavy sigh. "We have done so in the past and we will prevail again. But take heed, Sir Herringdale: if Octa's army enters Salisbury, bring your cattle and families here to Sarum to shelter within the walls before marching to fight."

With that grim warning echoing in his mind, Herringdale rode for home and an uncertain future.

The Winter Phase was equally grim. Lady Elaine managed to roll a fumble on her Stewardship roll (apparently she was sick much of the summer) and total disaster was averted only by the fact that I rolled a fumble for the Fate roll as well! Still, that means a Meager harvest, and with Earl Roderick imposing a tally of 6 libra on his vassals to help pay for siege preparations, Herringdale barely covered his expenses this year. Worse, word came that Herringdale's younger brother has gone missing, last heard from while fighting the Saxons in Lindsey!

All thoughts now turn towards the next year and the impending Saxon invasion. It's a turning point year, 495--I can't wait to see how it goes...
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