Sunday, April 18, 2010

[Solo GPC] 499: The Return

With the snows melting and the first warm breezes blowing through the eaves and branches of the Forest Sauvage, Sir Herringdale got set to try again at the Gallant's Challenge. Again, they headed out to the mews, and again Herringdale chose the Modest falcon. They then set out into the woods in search of quarry.



A winter's worth of practice quickly paid off; this time around Herringdale easily bagged his prey. The Gallant congratulated Herringdale on a job well done.

"When can I face the Lady's Challenge?" Herringdale asked.

"Soon enough," replied the Gallant. "Tonight, however, we will be busy with a most important guest."

The Gallant wouldn't offer further details, so Herringdale retired to his quarters until he was sent for. Arriving in the Great Hall, for the first time Herringdale was not allowed a seat at the high table. He was mollified somewhat when he noticed that the Dwarf, Lady, and Gallant all were standing by to serve the high table personally. Clearly the guest was quite important!

Once all the other tables were filled, a blast of trumpets could be heard from the antechamber. The great double doors swung open and in marched a procession of the strangest people Herringdale had ever seen--some were squat and round with long dangling arms and bulbous noses, others were mountains of wild hair and thick muscles, peg-like teeth jutting from rubbery lips. All were misshapen in some way, yet all were bedecked in clothes of the finest fabrics and wildest colors. Then the guest entered.

He was a man, or so Herringdale was fairly certain. But his hair was long like a lady's, and he wore a garment not unlike a dress, decorated with paisley brocades and creamy silks. Two diminutive creatures held up the train of the dress as the strange man made his way to the high table. Herringdale leaned in and whispered to the lady seated next to him.

"Is that the King of the Forest Sauvage?"

"He is a king, yes," replied the lady, "but no. That is King Oberon himself!"

Herringdale nodded like he understood, then set to eating.

Sometime during the eighth course, King Oberon signaled to the Lady of Sauvage. She stepped forward to refill his goblet, but instead he posed a question to her. His soft, silken voice seemed to cut through every conversation in the room, and quickly the hall filled with silence but for the exchange at the high table.

"Tell me, love, who is the Outsider sitting over there?" asked Oberon. With a sinking feeling, Herringdale realized he was the subject of the King's question. The Lady gave Herringdale an appraising look.

"That's Sir Herringdale of Salisbury, my lord," she replied. "Sir Herringdale! Rise and account for yourself!"

Herringdale suddenly grasped what was going on--this was the Lady's Challenge. Could he prove his courtly manners before such an illustrious lord as King Oberon?

It came down to a Courtesy roll--and Des nailed it. Herringdale was properly deferential and well-mannered. The Lady smiled and nodded as he sat back down.

The next day, Herringdale was summoned to the hall early. As he entered, he saw the throne occupied for the first time. Seated there was a twisted man, hunchbacked and deformed with a receding mop of curly red hair and a devilish cast to his face. Like Oberon's court, he was dressed in the finest cut of clothes that belied his revolting appearance.

"Welcome, Sir Herringdale, to my court," said the King of the Forest Sauvage. "It is good to finally meet you. I understand you have a question for me."

This was it. Nearly a year of struggle and hardship, and the time had finally come. Sir Herringdale cleared his throat (after Des and I made the requisite "Are you really the head of the Quickie Mart? Really? Really?" jokes).

"Do you know where to find the son of Prince Madoc?"

The King smiled. "He is in the forest where lost men find, where only eagles roost."

There was a pause. Herringdale shifted uncomfortably.

"And...where might that be?"

"Spend ten years lost, to start. That is all I know," said the King with a dismissive wave of the hand.

Two days later, Herringdale was at the edge of the Forest Sauvage. The Sauvage King had provided an escort, and Herringdale could see the southern road just a short distance away. Gratefully, he headed for home.

Arriving back at Sarum after a few days' travel, Herringdale found Ellen holding court. The assembled courtiers--who somehow looked less grand and pompous than before he'd left--turned to stare as Herringdale entered the hall. Ellen rose from her seat in surprise.

"Sir Herringdale! This is indeed a welcome surprise."

"I have returned from the Forest Sauvage my lady," said Herringdale with a deep bow.

"So it would seem. We had feared you lost for good when your squire delivered the ransom last winter to Tribruit and was informed you hadn't been heard from since you left in September."

"There is much to tell of what happened after that point."

"I am sure there is, and shall be glad to hear of it. But Prince Mark here was just about to tell us of the reason for his visit."

Taking the cue that Ellen wanted to hear the news in private, Herringdale took his spot behind her seat. With a sinking feeling, he picked out a familiar face among the courtiers--Prince Cynric, son of King Cerdic of Wessex, was waiting for an audience. Immediately before him, however, a richly accoutered man in his early 20s with a neatly-trimmed goatee and black hair presented himself to the Countess. The herald announced him: "Prince Mark, son of King Idres of Cornwall."

"My lady," said Mark, "as you know my father has been successfully campaigning to win back the lands due him by right of birth and title. This year he campaigns against Jagent. I have come to tell you that we intend only to win back our ancestral Cornish homeland and go no further--you need not fear our armies." At this his eyes darted to Prince Cynric, then he resumed his speech.

"I have also come on behalf of my father to ask for any troops you care to send. The Earl of Jagent is a stubborn and intractable foe who refuses to acknowledge my father's rightful rule; as you are a champion of justice and fairness, I am sure you could see fit to supporting our cause."

"I will give it due consideration," said Ellen evasively. Mark smiled and bowed.

"Well then," said the Countess, "I believe that concludes matters for the day." Prince Cynric looked upset at this. "I am sure you can all appreciate that I have need to speak to my Marshall and apprise him of recent events. Court is dismissed until further notice."

After the court had cleared out, it was just Ellen, Herringdale, Lady Gwiona, and Baldrick. The three listened with rapt attention as Herringdale described his adventures. Finally he arrived at the King's riddle of an answer.

"'Ten years lost'?" the Countess said, her brow furrowed. "Then it is a wild goose chase."

"Even if it weren't, I am not willing to pay so steep a price to search for the heir," said Herringdale.

"No, indeed not. We are truly on our own, then," said Ellen. "So be it. Your arrival couldn't have been timelier, Sir Herringdale. I have managed to put the Saxons off somewhat to this point. I paid Wessex tribute last year, and have invited Prince Cynric here to discuss an alliance. I have been informed that his terms are such that if we refuse an alliance, he wants double tribute. But my spies have also reported that tensions are growing among the Saxon kingdoms. It seems likely they will soon be at war with each other to sort out who is High King among them."

"That buys us some time," mused Herringdale. "But once they sort it out, we can expect them to come for us in force if we're not on their side."

"Exactly," said Ellen. "Then there's the matter of Idres. Clearly the might of Cornwall waxes strong of late. I had a communique from Prince Mark this morning--he is willing to discuss an alliance, although I think his version is closer to vassalage. I think the words in his missive were something along the lines of 'better a British lord than a Saxon ally'."

Herringdale raised his eyebrows in surprise. "He makes a good point."

There was silence as Herringdale and Ellen thought about the situation. Suddenly Lady Gwiona piped up.

"Did you see the fashions the ladies and maidens from Vagon Castle were wearing? They were Cornish patterns. Very sharp! And that Prince is certainly handsome..." She trailed off under Ellen's withering gaze.

Herringdale laughed. "I am with Lady Gwiona on this. Er, that is to say, there is much to recommend an alliance or even vassalage to Cornwall. With a powerful protector, we need not fear Saxon tribute. And perhaps King Idres has what it takes to send them back to the sea?"

"I shall have a meeting with Prince Mark on the morrow," said Ellen. "In the meantime, Sir Herringdale--go home. Your family would like to see you, I think."

Herringdale didn't like the look of sadness in her eyes as she said this. What awaited him back at Broughton Manor?

As the sun sank below the horizon, Herringdale caught sight of his home for the first time in two years. It was still standing at least. Riding through the palisade wall of his fortified manor, Herringdale was greeted by the doorman first, then his two youngest daughters, ages 6 and 8, who came running out from the manor house, squealing with delight. They clasped Herringdale's mailed legs as he patted them awkwardly on the head. Looking up, he caught sight of his wife, Lady Elaine, lurking in the doorway. As she stepped out into the late afternoon sunlight, he could see she looked ill. Her wan smile could not conceal the fact that she had lost two stone weight since the last time he saw her; her complexion had become more pallid; she even looked like she'd lost some hair.

Rather than answer Herringdale's questions, she led him to the main hall, where she and her handmaidens served him the best dinner they could. Apples from the orchard, honey from the apiary, mead brewed locally...and black bread and moldy cheese.

"No meat?" Herringdale asked in surprise.

"There has been precious little meat since you left, my lord," said Elaine meekly. "Times have been very hard."

Suddenly (with a successful Awareness roll) Herringdale realized he hadn't heard a familiar sound since he'd arrived home.

"Where are my geese?" he asked. Elaine looked down meekly at her folded hands. "Where are my geese?" he asked again. Still no answer. Herringdale jumped up and ran out into the yard. His marvelous geese, his marvelous flock of marvelous geese, was gone. Elaine followed him.

"With you out of the county, the Countess felt it wise to pay tribute to Wessex these past two years. So that's been hard enough...and when Baldrick brought news of your ransom..."

There was an uncomfortable silence, then Elaine carried on. "Well, your vassals contributed what they could, but it was still not enough. Sir Blaines, he heard of our distress and he offered very reasonable terms. Only two years' mortgage...if we gave him the marvelous geese."

Elaine went on to explain that Blaines had offered to broker a deal: in exchange for providing the balance of Herringdale's ransom, he would take an advance on the profits of Broughton hall for the next two years. And the geese in perpetuity, naturally.

Herringdale was overcome with rage. This was all Merlin's fault! That scheming wizard had meddled with his life for the last time. Accordingly, Des rolled up a directed trait of Suspicious (Merlin) +5.

Winter set in. Herringdale did as much hunting as he could, and several sides of salted boar and venison were laid aside for the cold months. Yet despite their best preparations, the harvest was poor and, worse, a series of calamities struck the manor over the winter. Cows gave sour milk. Supposedly fresh eggs were rotten. Chores done during the day were undone at night. The last clue came when Herringdale's youngest daughter, Lilo, told her father that she'd seen "a little brown man with pointy shoes" walking around the house at night.

A mischievous brownie! No doubt it had hitched a ride from the court of Castle Sauvage, and now it was wreaking havoc on the household. Against all odds, Des made Herringdale's Faerie Lore roll. He proceeded to give his daughter careful instructions: leave a fresh bowl of cream out for the brownie every night and in return the brownie would stop making mischief and instead help out with chores while everyone else was sleeping.

And so Lilo (thanks to a Calamity: Faerie Curse roll during the Winter Phase) acquired a brownie companion, which certainly makes her an attractive choice as a future PC (too bad she was born Sickly, but you can't win 'em all I guess).

And so concluded Herringdale's great two-year odyssey. Although he was no closer to finding the future king of Logres, he had seen many wondrous sights such that few other knights had (and lived to tell the tale). At the end of 499, as a new century dawned, Herringdale stood a mere 20 points from passing the 10,000 Glory mark.

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