We had left off on a decidedly down note for Sir Herringdale. Defeated in battle the previous year, he had been forced to cede Du Plain Castle to the ambitiously dastardly Sir Blaines of Levcomagus. As a sign of peace, Herringdale decided to send his second-oldest son to Blaines' court to begin his training as a page. He also dispatched his eldest children, a twin boy and girl, to far-off Cameliard to serve as page and handmaiden, respectively, at the court of King Leodegrance. Suddenly Broughton Hall was a lot less homey than before. Furthermore, things were looking increasingly grim across the board; savings and stockpiles were growing slim, other lords were throwing in their lot with the Saxons, King Idres had taken Tintagel Castle and was set to march on Devon, and Herringdale was courting disaster for Salisbury through his policy of non-compliance with Saxon requests for tribute. There were even rumors that Merlin the Magician was planning to leave Britain!
Things got even worse when Herringdale reported to Sarum Castle in the spring.
"They want triple tribute this year," said Ellen when she met with her Marshall. "Our loss of Du Plain Castle has signaled our weakness, and I've had embassies from three separate Saxon lords, each demanding full tribute. King Aelle of Sussex, King Cerdic of Wessex, even the East Saxons! I am beginning to think that the course followed by Duke Ulfius is wisest: alliance with one Saxon power at least spares us the threat of annihilation, or being bled to death."
At this point, Lady Gwiona spoke up.
"My lady, there is perhaps the hope that the knight of Bourton spoke of..."
"Rumors and tales are hardly a sound basis for foreign policy," said Countess Ellen reprovingly.
"What rumors are these, my lady?" inquired Sir Herringdale.
"Just more tales like such as I'd heard before--that Prince Madoc sired a son. The new wrinkle, as reported by a visiting knight from Bourton who stayed here over Yule is that the heir to the throne is secreted somewhere in the Forest Sauvage."
"Is that so?" asked Herringdale. "I agree, a fine story if only it were true."
"Aye," said the Countess wistfully. "A son of Madoc would surely bring the approval of the Supreme Collegium and end all this fighting and uncertainty."
A moment of silence passed as everyone allowed themselves a moment of fantasy. Then Countess Ellen brought things back to reality.
"I should like your advice on the matters pertaining to the Saxons," she said to Herringdale.
Herringdale gritted his teeth. As much as it galled him to think about, an alliance with a Saxon power was looking increasingly likely.
"I suggest that if you were to follow the course of an alliance, my lady, you contact King Cerdic of Wessex. He has demonstrated his willingness to turn his wrath against those who refuse tribute, he is our closest neighbor, and he is, at least, half-Cymric."
Ellen nodded thoughtfully.
"All excellent points, sir. I shall think on this some more. In the meantime, tend to your duties and I will send for you when I have need."
With a bow Sir Herringdale departed the hall and made ready to depart for his annual tour of the county's castles and lands. With him rode six loyal vassal knights, and the group was soon on its way.
After a fortnight of touring other sites, Sir Herringdale and company arrived at Vagon Castle, the old seat of Sir Elad and the castle where Sir Herringdale served as squire. Now being held in stewardship for the younger Squire Elad, Herringdale intended to sit in for a week to administer to matters of local concern. Over a few days' time he received several traveling merchants and a knight who was passing through to Sarum, and heard complaints from local villagers that their herds had been subjected to increasing wolf attacks. On the latter issue, Herringdale ordered that a hunt be organized to kill as many wolves as possible.
As he was wrapping up his time at Vagon, Herringdale received one more most unexpected visitor. The castle steward barely had time to announce "Merlin the Magician, my lord!" when the bearded enchanter himself came sweeping into the hall.
"Merlin!" exclaimed Herringdale, rising from his seat. "I had heard you were leaving the island."
"Indeed I am," said Merlin gruffly. "I'm on my way to Dorset as we speak to do just that. But first I thought you'd like to know that there's a Saxon supply party nearby. They are led by the infamous Saxon bandit known as the Knight of Tusks."
"Saxons on my land?" said Herringdale. "Show me."
Together with his vassals, Herringdale rode out with Merlin, south into the Modron Forest. Merlin guided them up into wooded hills, eventually to a spot overlooking a small river that ultimately fed into the Avon. From their vantage point, the group could see several boats pulled up along the shore being loaded with goods.
"I'll take these good knights forward in an assault on the Saxons down there. Sir Herringdale, you head up that trail over there and cut them off from behind. Sound good?"
Before Herringdale could really respond, Merlin was off, the other knights following behind. With a shrug, Herringdale remounted his charger and headed off along a recently-cut path through the woods. The road shortly led to a small clearing, where Herringdale could see several ox- and pony-carts being loaded up with looted goods by slaves in irons. Saxon guards were scattered here and there throughout the clearing.
Without a second thought, his hatred of Saxons rising up like a fire from his belly, Herringdale lowered his lance and charged into the clearing. He quickly got stuck in with a Saxon guard armed with a great spear; soon, another guard was on him, hacking ineffectively with a sword. Herringdale soon laid both guards low, feeling even as he did so the impact of an arrow on his chainmail armor. Looking around, he saw a lone archer getting set to take another pot-shot.
Herringdale's spear dug into the Knight of Tusks' shoulder, knocking him off his horse. At the same time, Herringdale could feel his charger, Smuggy II, come up lame. Looking behind him, he could see the shaft of an arrow sticking out of Smuggy's haunch. That damn archer!
As the Knight of Tusks regained his feet, Sir Herringdale dismounted and squared off with the bandit leader. Sword clashed with axe as the two went round and round in a circle of combat. The Knight of Tusks fought well, and Herringdale sensed his opponent was both skillful at arms and honorable. It was that much more regrettable when Herringdale finally split the knight's tusk helmet and skull in twain, splattering his brains across the muddy ground. Taking half the walrus skull as a trophy, Herringdale looked around for the archer. Only his combat-honed reflexes allowed him to get his shield up in time as another arrow came flying his way. Even then, the arrowhead pierced the wood of the shield and sank a bit into Herringdale's arm.
"You're dog meat!" Herringdale screamed, and the archer took off running into the woods. Herringdale was hot on his heels. One opposed Dexterity roll later, Herringdale had caught him up and sent the archer tumbling to the ground with a sword swipe across his back. The archer was left, incapacitated, to slowly bleed to death on the forest floor, Herringdale's legendary mercy this time overidden by his hatred of Saxons, and of this Saxon archer in particular.
Back in the clearing, Herringdale saw to freeing the slaves, all Cymric folk who had been captured by the Knight of Tusks and his band. He then headed down to the riverside to find that his companions were wrapping up their own slaughter of Saxon bandits. The day had been a complete triumph!
The next day, back at Vagon Castle, Merlin was preparing to take his leave.
"Sir Herringdale," he said, "my journey thus far has been mostly uneventful, but frankly I have many enemies who would much prefer to see me dead than in exile. Being one of the most capable knights in the kingdom, I would like very much if you rode with me to Dorset. Just in case."
Herringdale thought it over a bit, then agreed. He left instructions for his vassals to carry on in his absence, promising to be back in a week or less, then rode south with Merlin along the old King's Road through the Modron Forest towards Dorchester.
The ride was a pleasant one, and the two companions talked little.
"I have no friends left in Britain," Merlin said at one point. "So it's best for me to, eh, let the stew simmer for a while, as it were. All that's best is in hiding."
"In hiding?" Herringdale asked, suddenly remembering his conversation with the Countess. "Are you referring to Madoc's son in the Forest Sauvage?"
Merlin was silent. They rode on.
On the second day of the journey, Herringdale caught sight of a knight riding up from the south. Having just crossed an old Roman bridge over a fast-flowing river, the knight had paused, regarding Herringdale and Merlin as they approached. As he drew close enough to make out a coat of arms, Herringdale felt a rush of recognition--it was Sir Cynrain, the Cornish knight who had been Herringdale's mortal enemy turned friend.
"Hail, Sir Cynrain!" Herringdale said, beaming. Merlin held back as the two knights rode up to greet each other.
"Hail, Marshall of Salisbury!" said Cynrain. Although he was smiling, the smile seemed strained.
"What is the matter, Sir Cynrain?"
"I see you ride with Merlin the Magician."
"Indeed. I am sworn to protect him on his ride to Dorset."
"Then I am afraid one of us must die this day, for I am sworn to kill him before he reaches the sea," said Cynrain, a look of sorrow on his face. He went on to explain that he was on a mission from Queen Igraine, who naturally still held a vendetta for the enchanter after he kidnapped her only begotten son. Sir Cynrain, a loyal Cornishman to the last, had accepted Queen Igraine's mission gladly.
"But now I am most grieved, for I will have to kill a friend this day as well it seems," he said.
"It is not my wish to fight you, Sir Cynrain," said Herringdale, "but our duties as knights demand it. So be it."
The two dismounted and drew swords. Merlin looked on impassively.
The first round of blows left Herringdale knocked to the ground, bruised and bleeding. Sir Cynrain had lost none of the ferocious strength that had nearly killed Herringdale during their first encounters as foes. Cynrain allowed Herringdale to get back on his feet, then promptly knocked him down again.
Although Cynrain's eyes pleaded for Herringdale to stay down, our hero got back to his feet. Locking shields with Cynrain, Herringdale began pushing him back towards the bridge with a hail of blows. Finally, his assault culminated in a terrific shot against the side of Cynrain's head that sent his helmet flying and knocked the Cornishman to the ground unconscious. As Cynrain's squire rushed in to tend to his master, Herringdale remounted his horse and led Merlin across the bridge and on towards Dorchester.
Being close to their destination, they put spur to horse and galloped along the forest road. At one point, Herringdale spotted among the trees a pack of pitch-black dogs the size of ponies paralleling their course, but with a few muttered words from Merlin, they seemed to evaporate into the darkness of the woods.
"You'll have to try harder than that, Vivienne!" shouted Merlin triumphantly.
Arriving at the seaport, Merlin's ship was waiting at the dock. While his horse was being loaded on board, Merlin turned to Herringdale.
"As to your question earlier, I know not of the son of Madoc, or where he dwells within the forest. If anyone knows, however, it would be the King of the Forest Sauvage. Seek for him and you will find your answer. Til we meet again, Sir Herringdale."
With that, Merlin boarded his ship and Herringdale rode back towards Salisbury, his mind set on Merlin's words: "All that's best is in hiding." Perhaps the fate of Britain lay within the dark and mysterious Forest Sauvage...