Tuesday, February 23, 2010

[Solo GPC] 495: The Hall of the Dead

I had wanted to get to this year before our move. I knew that, whatever might transpire, it would be a watershed year and a good point to leave things off for the time being (no fear, we have every intention of continuing the campaign once we're settled in at our new place--we just have no idea how long that might take).



At any rate, the action kicked off with Herringdale once again finding himself back at Sarum Castle. This time was different, however; the castle and town were packed to bursting with thousands of knights, soldiers, nobles, and courtiers. King Uther was holding court at Sarum this year and the assembled army of Logres had come to answer his call.

Of course, terms like "holding court" were in this case to be used only in the loosest sense--Uther's languishing illness was growing steadily worse. Some whispered of a curse laid by Merlin. Others said it was a wasting disease and that he was near death. Herringdale (with a successful Intrigue roll) even picked up some indications of second-guessing and insecurity regarding the King's decision to offer battle to the Saxon horde currently making its way south from Lindsey. Surely it would be better to emulate the northern lords and hole up behind castle walls and let the invaders do their worst on the countryside?

While sitting contemplatively in a window alcove of the castle's north-west tower, looking out over a hundred trails of smoke rising up from campfires throughout the town as the sun was sinking low on a warm summer evening, Herringdale overheard the chatter of a group of ladies of the Earl's court as they came down the stairs. Among the voices he recognized Lady Gwiona, the Countess' second lady-in-waiting.

The subject of discussion seemed to revolve around whether it was safe to wait at Sarum or to make a run for it immediately. Gwiona chided the other ladies for their fear, reminding them that the King and all his knights were assembled right there.

"Do you think we have enough supplies set aside, in case we have to run for it?” said one lady as they passed Herringdale's perch, not noticing him.

“Well, I’ll say that I’m going to spend the night with that new squire if we’re that close to dying,” said another to a chorus of giggles.

“Listen, darlings," said Gwiona, silencing the tittering, "Uther may be ill, but it isn’t over yet.”

Herringdale stepped out into the stairwell as the ladies were about to disappear behind the bend.

"You are only too right, Lady Gwiona. The rest of you should be ashamed of yourselves for questioning the King's strength, or the ability of his men to fight in his name."

Chastened, the women bustled off. Herringdale remained in the stairway, his brow furrowed. Despite his strong words, he himself was beset by doubts. A part of him felt that Uther and Igraine deserved all the trouble they'd brought down on themselves. "A shame that the rest of us have to suffer for it as well," he thought.

With a heavy sigh, he began descending the stairs. The army was set to pack up and move east the next day and there was much to do.

***

And so we moved the clock forward. Sir Herringdale, now marching as part of Earl Roderick's personal guard, had been on the road with the army for several days. The dust, the clanking of armor, the neighing of horses, the cries of pack mules, the chatter of soldiers on the march, these had been his world since leaving Sarum.

The army was moving through the County of Rydychan and was coming down out of the Chiltern Hills, approaching the city of St. Albans. King Uther, despite his illness, had been riding with his men the whole length of the trip so far. Being under the Earl's banner, Herringdale had been riding in the royal battalion and had had ample time to observe the King--his complexion was wan and waxen, his movements slower, his beard streaked with gray. It was as if he'd aged decades in just the last couple years. But he had Excalibur at his side, and his advisers still seemed willing and able to follow his orders.

As the army was about to crest the last rise before entering the Tea River valley, a general halt was signaled. Duke Ulfius, leading the vanguard, had encountered a sizable group of peasants hiding in the woods near the road. They claimed to be from St. Albans and surrounding villages and bore shocking news: the Saxons had come upon the city the day before and had taken it in a surprise assault. The garrison and many of the townsfolk were slaughtered in the assault, and now the foreign barbarians sheltered behind the city walls!

Uther took his battalion up to observe the lay of the land. Reaching the crest of the rise, the walled city could be seen about a mile off, sitting on the banks of the Tea. Something was immediately obvious to everyone who looked upon the deceptively bucolic scene: the gates of the city stood open! Uther immediately ordered a banner of knights forward to seize the gateworks.

Herringdale watched in suspense as the knights galloped across the mile of open country towards the city. No sign of alarm or defense could be seen on the city walls. So far so good... Uther ordered several regiments of archers and footmen forward to support the knights, and they began marching out as the horsemen neared the gates. Then the Saxons sprang their trap. As the knights passed through the gates, Herringdale watched in horror as the gates were shut behind them!

Throughout the rest of the day, archers peppered the city walls and foot soldiers launched futile attacks that cost many lives. Of the knights who passed through the city gates, none returned. It was a disastrous start to the battle, and left many knights, Herringdale included, in a melancholic mood and made for fitful sleep that night.

The next morning at dawn, the sound of trumpets signaled the assembly. As the army of Logres formed up, the gates of the city opened once again and the Saxon army of 9,000 men marched out. To oppose them stood Uther's army consisting mostly knights and men of Logres, but a few kingdoms had sent allied contingents. Somewhere in the left battalion, Herringdale knew, was Sir Alain de Carlion and a small unit of knights from Escavalon. It was the most King Nanteleod had been able to spare, having his own hands full with containing a wave of Irish raids in the wake of the destabilizing collapse of Estregales. In all, the total strength opposing King Octa's Saxons was some 1,500 knights and 5,000 footmen.

We broke out the Book of Battle and the Battle of St. Albans got under way. Charging under Earl Roderick's banner, Sir Herringdale smashed into the Saxon lines, colliding with a unit of spear-wielding heorthgeneats. The force of the charge carried Roderick's banner through to the Saxon 2nd rank after an hour of fighting. Feeling saucy and looking for the big kill, Earl Roderick ordered an "Attack versus Two" maneuver. With Howling Warriors and richly-accoutered Saxon nobility facing them, Herringdale and his comrades in arms fought their opponents to a standstill.

Despite not having made any headway, the boldness of Earl Roderick's attack had thrown the Saxon lines into confusion. Levy archers were ordered forward to pepper the knights with arrows, but their fire was largely ineffective. Sensing an opportunity, Earl Roderick ordered his unit to start moving against the exposed flank of an enemy unit. Despite not encountering any resistance, the maneuver in the heat and crush of melee proved too much, and Herringdale found himself in a confused and Disordered morass, now vulnerable to counter-attack.

Despite suffering from Disordered status, however, Sir Herringdale weathered the Saxon assault. More arrows rained down and warriors armed with 2-handed axes charged in, but Herringdale came through with only a couple bruises and a minor scratch. (Des kept rolling successes, so Herringdale was enjoying his shield bonus even when he lost the combat.) As the axemen attacked, however, Herringdale caught sight of Earl Roderick getting hauled down from his horse! Unable to lend assistance, he heaved a sigh of relief when he saw Sir Bar ride to the Earl's rescue, driving off his assailants long enough to give the Earl a chance to remount.

As the sixth hour of battle wore on, Earl Roderick caught sight of Sir Elad's banner over the heads of a mass of seething, frothy-mouthed Saxon warriors. The Earl ordered his herald to blast a signal on his trumpet that would alert Sir Elad to simultaneously attack the Seething Warriors Full of Hate. Invoking his Hate (Saxons) passion, Herringdale charged in and nearly clove a warrior in two.

Although they had been holding their own, Earl Roderick's men had failed to make significant headway. At this point, Roderick ordered an orderly withdrawal to form up and charge in again. Successfully disengaging from the Howling Warriors, Roderick's men made their way back towards their lines. As he formed up for another charge, Herringdale was able to get a better idea of the bigger picture. He could hear Saxon war horns blowing the signal for the general retreat and could see units starting to disengage.

"Come on men, now is the time to strike! For God and St. George!" yelled Earl Roderick.

The charge was signaled with a blast of trumpets and Herringdale was off again. A unit of hapless ceorl archers had been ordered forward to cover the Saxon retreat, and Roderick's men cut through them like grass. The Saxon retreat quickly turned into a rout as other British units charged ahead alongside the Earl's banner. As the mass of battle turned into a dozen smaller pursuits, Herringdale brought his horse up, looking around for his young squire, Beleus. In his first battle, Herringdale's young ward had come through fine up to this point, even lending Herringdale his own rouncey at one point when Herringdale was knocked from his saddle by the force of an axeman's blow. But now he was nowhere to be seen.

Making his way back towards the rear areas, Herringdale searched among the wounded. He was startled to find both Sir Brastias and Sir Ulfius being tended to in their tents, both grievously wounded. Eventually, he found Beleus being tended to among the footsoldiers, wounded by an arrow to the shoulder. Herringdale used his superior First Aid skill to tend to Beleus on the spot, and the two were soon on their way. News soon reached Herringdale's ears: the British victory had been nearly total! Uther himself had slain King Octa and the Saxon army had melted away like snow falling on warm ground. An overwhelming sense of jubilation began sweeping through the British ranks.

Cut to later that night, within the city of St. Albans. Streets still littered with the detritus of the brief Saxon occupation, all energy and attention had turned towards celebrating the great victory. A great feast had been declared and the entire British army was in attendance. So large was the feast that only the assembled high nobility, plus notable heroes of the battle like Sir Bar, would fit within the city citadel's hall. The remainder feasted out in the bailey under the stars.

Sir Herringdale made his way across the bailey, picking his way through the thronging crowd of knights, squires, ladies, and entertainers. Several times his name was called, and he'd answer with a wan smile and a hoisted goblet, but he wasn't feeling terribly social. He was elated, perhaps even surprised, by the victory, but he did not feel fulfilled. Then he spotted a familiar face, and for the first time that evening he flashed a genuine smile.

Sir Alain de Carlion strode through the crowd and clapped Sir Herringdale in a deep hug. He was clearly already into his cups. Des rolled her Chaste--and failed. Then she rolled her Lustful--and Critted. As Sir Alain broke from the hug and gave Herringdale a kiss on both cheeks, Herringdale planted a third kiss directly on Alain's lips.

A moment passed as Alain looked at Herringdale in surprise. Then the two knights looked around somewhat guiltily, but it appeared the kiss had gone unnoticed. Motioning, Sir Alain led Herringdale off to a nearby cow barn...

They passed the evening in a pleasant manner and gradually dozed off. Around midnight, Herringdale was shaken from his sleep by an unearthly scream originating from the castle keep, where the nobles had gathered. Shaking Sir Alain awake, Herringdale grabbed his sword and ran out into the bailey in his skivvies. The bailey looked like a tornado had swept through; it had clearly been quite the party. Some knights were splayed out, drunk and snoring, on benches, tables, and the ground, half-naked serving girls snuggled in their arms. Others with more Herculean appetites had clearly still been engaged in feasting and drinking, but now they too were half-standing from their seats, swords in hand, looking warily up at the keep.

"Come on!" Herringdale yelled, and he began vaulting up the stone stairs leading to the keep's second-floor entrance. Just as he was about to reach the iron-bound oak door, it flew open and Herringdale stood in shock as he saw his friend Sir Bar come stumbling out, his face purple, bloody foam pouring from his mouth. Vomiting one last torrent of blood, Sir Bar's eyes rolled back in his head and he fell off the stair landing, crashing onto a table in the bailey below.

Warily, Sir Herringdale led the way into the keep and thence to the great hall. The scene that greeted the knights was one straight out of the bowels of Hell.

The air of the hall hung thick with the smell of vomit and blood. Not a single body stirred. Spread like a horrific tableau were over a hundred noblemen, some face down in their trenchers, others splayed across tables and benches in a bloody mockery of the drunken revelers below. Anxiously, Sir Herringdale proceded into the hall, silent tears streaming down his cheeks. Here was Sir Elad, his beard flecked with blood, eyes staring lifelessly at the rafters of the hall. And here--here was Earl Roderick! Dead. And up at the high table, still seated in his throne, was King Uther, slumped and staring, blood and vomit running down his chin onto his fine silk tunic.

The nobility of Britain was dead. Logres was leaderless.

Remembering the panic and warring that soon gripped Estregales during his mission there the previous year, Herringdale's first thoughts were for his family. Pushing past panicking serving maids who had come in from the kitchen and sobbing knights, he found Sir Alain.

"Ride for your manor," Alain said. "I will ride for Carlion this very night and carry this grim news to King Nanteleod."

Herringdale nodded and without a second's hesitation headed out of the Hall of the Dead, not daring to look back. Grabbing his clothes and armor, he found Beleus and was galloping down the western road within 10 minutes. The cries and lamentations arising from St. Albans could be heard for miles, or so it seemed.

After several hours of riding, Beleus volunteered that they could find rest at Dorchester, where his great aunt, the Countess of Rydychan, was holding court. And so they spent the night and the following day in that town on the edge of the Forest Sauvage, bringing tidings of woe to the Countess' court. The Countess opined that this tragedy was clearly the work of Saxon fiends--she brought up the infamous Night of Long Knives in which similar treachery had been perpetrated at the hands of Vortigern's Saxon lackeys. Herringdale's own grandfather had met his end at that feast, and it was in that event that the family hatred of Saxons was born.

The next day, they pressed on, reaching the borders of Salisbury at dusk. Riding through the night, Herringdale arrived at Broughton Hall around midnight. At Dorchester he had hired a messenger to gallop on ahead to convey news to Lady Elaine, and he arrived to find the gates to the manor sealed shut. He was quickly recognized and let in, and there he met Elaine, who was dressed in mourning black. She tenderly stroked her husband's cheek, relieved that he had survived the massacre.

"Come, there is much work to do to secure our lands," said Herringdale, sparing his wife a brief smile.

Meanwhile, a hundred black-shrouded caskets began to make their way out across Logres from St. Albans. Earl Roderick and King Uther traveled together one last time. Roderick was to be buried at Sarum Cathedral, Uther at Stonehenge alongside his brother and son. Herringdale attended both funerals.

At Stonehenge, turnout was light. So many noblemen were dead, and those that survived had relatives of their own to bury. Nevertheless, hundreds of commoners had turned out along the route back from St. Albans to watch the King's procession. Even at Stonehenge, a group had gathered at a respectful distance to watch the proceedings. Closer in, among the menhirs, Herringdale watched as Queen Igraine, dressed in black, sobbed while Uther's coffin was laid in the ground. Perhaps she cared for him after all? Or perhaps she was simply scared to be once again without a protector. Rumor had it that she would soon be entering Amesbury Abbey, retiring to live out the remainder of her life as a nun. She was to take her daughter Morgan with her until such time as a suitable husband could be found for the young teenager.

At Sarum, the ceremony laying Roderick to rest was similarly subdued. Afterwords, in the shadow of the cathedral spires, knights of the Earl's court gathered around to talk. The Earl's heir, Robert, was a mere boy of three; his mother, Countess Ellen, would have to rule in his stead until his majority. Sir Lycus, that old hot-head, was of the opinion that the knights owed nothing to the Countess and that their loyalty, particularly in uncertain times, should be based on martial prowess. Sir Leo, on the other hand, swore that he would protect the Countess and provide a role model for the young Earl.

Sir Herringdale sided with Sir Leo. "Who else are we going to serve if not the Countess?" he argued. Reluctantly, Sir Lycus agreed.

Later that day, Ellen gathered her vassals in the hall of Sarum Castle. There, as one, they swore loyalty to her and to young Earl Robert. She then called Sir Herringdale forward.

"Sir Herringdale," she began, "as one of my husband's most valorous and honorable knights, I would like you to take up the office of Marshal of Salisbury. Do you accept this duty?"

"Of course, my lady," said Sir Herringdale, bowing. Internally, he thought differently. Such responsibility being thrust upon him! He was now elevated from vassal to banneret, and as such would have knights serving under him. In battle, he would now lead rather than merely follow, and as Marshal it would be his duty to see to the security of the county's borders and to the peace within.

Countess Ellen bequeathed Sir Elad's old vassals to Herringdale along with permission to further fortify his manor as he saw fit. That Winter Phase, Herringdale did build a couple new improvements; first, foreseeing possible need of it, he had a hospital constructed near his guesthouse. Second, he commissioned an old Roman master to create a mosaic in his private chambers. The design of the mosaic, depicting a knight riding in triumph, mace held high, was very specific in its instructions as to the appearance of the warrior's face. Although no one locally would think one way or other of the handsome mosaic knight staring up at them, any visitor from Lincoln would instantly recognize the knight as the Duke's old chamberlain, Sir Jordans...
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