Thursday, April 22, 2010

[Solo GPC] 500: A Lion in Summer

This year marked a turning point in a lot of ways. As I mentioned in a comment to my last campaign update, this year promised much courtly intrigue--only appropriate, since Herringdale's Intrigue skill is up to 17 by now!--and a possible shift in tone. I think it delivered on both promises in spades.

The action picked up as winter snows gave way to cold spring rains. It was the first week of April, and Easter Sunday was drawing nigh. Despite having just come out of a particularly difficult winter in which he was obliged to dismiss a couple members of his court and live as an Ordinary Knight (instead of Rich) for the first time in years, Sir Herringdale was determined to put on a lavish holiday feast for his household.

It was therefore much to his dismay that he received a visit from Sir Blaines of Levcomagus on Maundy Thursday. Ostensibly there to tender his wishes for a prosperous new year, he was really coming around to make sure Herringdale was taking good care of Broughton's assets, which after all belonged to Blaines for the next two years. And of course Blaines would be staying through the weekend, so Herringdale would be further obliged to tend to his guest and retinue, straining already scant resources.

All of this didn't exactly leave Herringdale disposed to honoring any request Blaines might make of him, but at the Easter feast the cagey Steward made an offer that Herringdale couldn't refuse.

As the last course was cleared away and Blaines was contentedly wiping his hands on Herringdale's finest linen tablecloth, he broached the subject casually.

"I suppose as Marshall of Salisbury you have the trust and ear of the Countess?"

"Naturally," replied Herringdale. "And, I might add, I would never abuse that trust."

Blaines laughed. "Ah no, my good sir, you misunderstand me. I merely meant to suggest that you might serve as a messenger for me, as I have a wish of the utmost gravity I wish to convey to the Countess."

"Then why not tell her yourself?" asked Herringdale, trying to keep his voice level and polite.

Again Blaines chuckled. "I would, but I'm afraid the Countess would not take me seriously. I need a messenger who can convey the depths of my true feelings. For you see, I wish to take the Countess's hand in marriage, and I would be only too grateful if you would convey that wish to her."

"Very well," said Herringdale.

"Furthermore," continued Blaines, "if my wish is granted, I'd see to it that you are remunerated appropriately. I could certainly see to a renegotiation of the terms of our, eh, arrangement, to start."

Herringdale nodded. "I will do my best to convey the depths of your earnestness."

The following day Sir Blaines and his retinue departed. "Good riddance!" Herringdale spat as they rode around a bend and out of sight. It was time to tend to the affairs of his manor before departing for Sarum at Pentecost.

Six weeks passed in the blink of an eye, and soon Herringdale was on the well-traveled road to Sarum, carpets of bluebells giving the surrounding countryside a lavender sheen under expansive blue skies. Herringdale, Baldrick, and their train of horses rode up the hill towards Sarum, the city's ancient granite walls looming up over the Salisbury Plain.

The picture's a little out of period as far as armor and livery is concerned, but it's one of my favorites. A great reminder that even a lone knight is actually a miniature convoy of horses, retainers, and equipment.

Through the gates and on to the citadel, then (with a brief pause to shake off the dirt of the road) up to the keep. Entering the familiar halls, Herringdale caught a hint of motion out of the corner of his eye; a door had silently slid open and someone was rushing at him! With Des rolling a crit on her Awareness, Herringdale was immediately able to discern his "attacker" was a mere child armed with a wooden sword and shield, and he reacted accordingly, feigning a desperate defense against the miniature onslaught.

Having not seen the boy in three years, it took Herringdale a moment to recognize his assailant: It was none other than young Earl Robert, now eight years old and full of mischief. Soon Robert's handlers caught up with him, and Herringdale bid his junior lord farewell before proceeding into the hall. As he made his way towards the hall's double doors, they suddenly swung open. Out strode two Saxon princes, shooting daggers at each other. They barely noticed Herringdale as they passed by him on either side.

"The Saxons are at each others' throats," said Ellen triumphantly as Herringdale entered. "We may get away with no tribute this year."

After proceeding through formalities and the usual business, Herringdale steeled himself to hold up his end of the bargain with Sir Blaines.

"My lady, I have also brought you a message from Sir Blaines of Levcomagus."

The Countess's nose wrinkled at the name. "What does that slime want? Is he ready to hand back Du Plain Castle?"

Herringdale was stung at the reminder of his defeat, but didn't let it show. "I'm afraid not, my lady. Rather, he wished me to tender a request to you, a request for your hand in marriage."

The Countess looked surprised for a moment, then started to chuckle. The chuckle quickly turned into a laugh, then a full guffaw. She had to sit down, she was laughing so hard.

"Oh dear me," she said, wiping a tear from her eye as she recovered her composure. "I didn't care for his warty hand ten years ago, what makes him think I'd have changed my mind now?"

"Perhaps he wishes to facilitate an alliance between Salisbury and Silchester?" Herringdale suggested, his dim hope for a reprieve on his mortgage quickly fading before his eyes.

"I'd sooner ally with a Pict chieftan!" exclaimed Ellen, and that was the end of that. Herringdale shrugged; he had tried, and that was all he'd promised Blaines.

"On to matters of greater importance," said Ellen. "I heard you tussling with young Robert out in the antechamber. He's getting to an age where he could benefit from some martial training. Would you object to remaining here a fortnight and favor him with some?"

"It would be my honor, lady," said Herringdale, bowing low.

A week passed. Herringdale was put up in a small chamber in the keep's northeast tower, and he passed his days teaching young Robert the ins and outs of sword fighting, shield bashing, and other assorted tricks of the trade. Despite his young age and diminutive frame, Robert impressed Herringdale with his natural prowess. Clearly this was his father's son and with any luck he would grow into a capable lord and leader of the county.

It was late afternoon halfway through his stay in Sarum when Herringdale was informed of the approach of a foreign retinue of knights. They bore the arms of Escavalon! Ellen assembled her court to welcome the travelers, and presently who should come through the door but Sir Alain de Carlion.

"This is a most welcome surprise," said Ellen as Alain bowed graciously before her, his long red hair tumbling over his face. As he stood up, he swept the hair from his eyes and flashed Herringdale a broad smile. They had not seen each other since the fateful night of the Battle of St. Albans, when all of Logres's upper nobility were laid low.

"My lady," said Sir Alain, "I am merely traveling to London on a mission for my lord, King Nanteleod, but I would not pass up an opportunity to visit your fine court on my way."

"You are welcome here as a guest," replied Ellen. "Marshall Herringdale, see to it that Sir Alain and his entourage are made to feel welcome."

"My lady," said Herringdale, returning Alain's smile.

Later, as the sun was setting over the western horizon, Herringdale and Alain stood atop the citadel's battlements, taking in the magnificent view of the city below and the surrounding mist-shrouded plain stretching out as far as the eye could see.

"It is good to see you again," said Alain, laying a gloved hand on Herringdale's.

"And you as well," said Herringdale.

"I must confess, I came to Sarum with a purpose more than mere sightseeing," said Alain.

"Oh?" said Herringdale, his heart skipping a beat.

"I have come on behalf of King Nanteleod on a secret mission," said Alain.

"Oh," said Herringdale, somewhat deflated. "And what might that be?"

"Even as I speak, the King wages war against the Irish kingdom of Estregales. Earlier this year he defeated the hill tribes of Gales and won their allegiance, and just earlier this month he won a crushing victory against the Irish savages who usurped the crown of Estregales. Their leaders have all submitted to him, and it only remains now to wrap up the remaining pockets of resistance."

"That is good news indeed!" said Herringdale.

"Aye, it is. Even now, my King's mind turns to his next move, and he has sent me here to inquire specifically about the possibility of an alliance."

"This is even better news!" exclaimed Herringdale, truly elated for the first time in memory.

Before they could discuss matters further, the sound of a trumpet sounded from a watchtower on the city walls drifted up on the evening breeze. Squinting out into the gathering twilight, Herringdale and Alain could just make out a small retinue of armed men making their way along the road from the west, the red setting sun at their backs.

"More of your men, Sir Alain?" Herringdale asked.

"Afraid not. Looks like you have more visitors."

"Friendly, I hope," said Herringdale as he gathered his cloak about his shoulders and hustled down the wall, making his way back to the keep.

An hour later, Herringdale and the assembled court had their answer. The court herald announced the arrival of Prince Mark of Cornwall.

As the firepit in the center of the hall was stoked, Prince Mark strode in, his large entourage sweeping in behind him. As the shadows gathered in the eaves and recesses of the hall, he presented himself before the Countess.

"To what do we owe this unannounced visit?" Countess Ellen inquired, somewhat frostily.

"My lady," Mark said, unfazed, "I have come once again at the behest of my father. You have no doubt had word of our successful campaign against Jagent last year. This year we again march to war, this time against the intractable Earl of Dorset, who refuses to acknowledge our ancestral claim on his land. I would like to again assure you that Cornwall has no designs on your lands, and again let it be known that if you wish to fight for us in the name of seeing justice done, you would be more than welcome in our ranks."

"Thank you, Prince Mark," said Ellen. "As before, I welcome your tidings of peace, and as before I tell you that we have no men-at-arms to spare. Nevertheless, you are free to remain as a guest here as long as need be, and for tonight at least you are welcome to join us at the high table, where a place shall be made for you alongside Sir Alain de Carlion."

A fine feast was then laid out, and the revelry stretched into the night. Alain and Herringdale made eyes at each other over the head of the bored lady seated between them, and Herringdale even won a drinking contest at the end of the evening, his legendary Constitution beating out all the younger knights who challenged him.

Perhaps it was his swimming head, but as the feast wound down and everyone dispersed, Herringdale sent for Prince Mark to meet him in his chambers. Mark soon appeared and Herringdale bade him have a seat.

"I wanted to talk to you before you left, Highness," said Herringdale. "About the possibility of an alliance. I know you were discussing it with the Countess last year."

"Indeed I was," said Mark. "Is she amenable?"

"I think now more than ever we must look to solidifying alliances," said Herringdale.

"This news does indeed please me," said Mark, "for I came to Salisbury with an ulterior motive."

"Another one with a hidden agenda?" Herringdale thought. "What might that be?" he asked aloud.

"I intend to propose to the Countess for her hand in marriage!" said Mark triumphantly.

"Then you have come at the right time," said Herringdale. "I happen to know the Countess has other suitors aggressively pursuing her even now."

"Is that so?" said Mark.

"I can speak to her if you like," said Herringdale. Mark rose, stroking his goatee thoughtfully and strode out of the room without responding.

Shrugging, Herringdale summoned Baldrick and bade him seek for Sir Alain. "I should like to have a...meeting with him as well," he said. With a mumbled "M'lord" Baldrick was off, and soon Sir Alain, also well into his cups, was joining Herringdale in his quarters.

Herringdale told Baldrick to sleep out in the hall and see he wasn't disturbed, and he and Alain were soon busy with their "meeting."

An hour or so passed. The light from the tallow candles was growing dim when Herringdale (with another successful Awareness roll) heard angry voices out in the hall. Hurriedly telling Alain to hide behind the room's sole tapestry, he jumped up and just managed to slip his breeches on when Prince Mark came bursting through the door, an outraged Baldrick trailing behind him.

"My lord, I tried to tell him you were in a meeting with Sir Alain..." whined Baldrick.

"It's alright Baldrick," said Herringdale, desperately trying to maintain his composure. "Sir Alain left some time ago--you must have dozed off."

"I never did, my lord--!" Baldrick protested, but Herringdale silenced him with a look.

"To what do I owe the honor of your visit, Prince Mark?" Herringdale inquired. He could see that Mark was fairly fuming.

"Do you enjoy making sport of me?" said Mark, spittle flying from his lips.

"Whatever do you--?"

"She sent me away!" Mark said, nearly shouting.

"Who? Not the Countess?"

"Yes, the Countess! Who else?"

"Why on Earth did you go to her now?" asked Herringdale.

Mark nearly choked on his rage. "Because you told me she had other suitors and I'd better act fast!" he yelled.

"Well, I hardly meant this fast...I was going to speak to her tomorrow. Why didn't you wait?" said Herringdale.

At this point Baldrick came back into the room, a look of urgency on his face. "My lord, the Countess approaches!"

"Quick, under the bed!" Herringdale told Mark, who did as he was told. Seconds later, Countess Ellen swept into the room.

"I just had a most interesting visit from Prince Mark," she said, coolly.

"Oh?" said Herringdale, trying to sound casual.

"Yes. He proposed a marriage between us. Where do you think he might have gotten the idea for such a cheeky proposal?"

Herringdale was silent.

"He told me that you had given him the impression that I couldn't wait to marry him. Hah! In the future, Marshall, I would appreciate you leave such matters to me and tend to your own responsibilities instead."

"Yes, my lady," Herringdale said, chastened. "Allow me to escort you back to your chambers."

Ellen's quarters were located in the tower catty-corner to Herringdale's. As they approached the door leading up to Ellen's chambers, Herringdale paused.

"My lady," he said, "I respect your feelings on Prince Mark and Sir Blaines...but it would seem a marriage and alliance are Salisbury's best hope."

Ellen sighed. "I know, sir, I know. But to whom?"

Herringdale seized his opportunity. "Sir Alain told me he has come here to discuss an alliance with Escavalon. I say we go one better--King Nanteleod is unmarried, is he not?"

Ellen's eyebrows arched in surprise, but she quickly started to smile cagily. "I like the way you think, Sir Herringdale. I shall summon Sir Alain for a private meeting tomorrow and we will suss things out, as the Saxons say."

After bidding the Countess a good night, crossing through the empty hall where Alain and Mark's retinues lay slumbering, and proceeding up the tower stairs to his own room, Herringdale could hear raised voices coming from up the stairwell.

"God's hooks!" Herringdale exclaimed as he began running up the stairs two at a time. It was as he feared--the shouts were coming from his chamber. Entering, he found Alain and Mark in each others' faces. As Herringdale entered, Mark turned on him.

Alain stood fuming, clad only in his chemise, as Mark jabbed a finger at him. "What is this, a spy in your chamber? Or a midnight dalliance?" asked the Prince.

"I shall leave, Sir Herringdale," said Alain, and he stormed out. Seconds later he returned and, silently and with as much dignity as he could muster, gathered up the rest of his clothes, then left.

Mark turned to Herringdale as Alain left. Herringdale didn't like the grin on Mark's face.

"Well, well," Mark said, his voice now silky smooth. "How about we strike a deal, Marshall Herringdale? You use your powers of influence and persuasion and see to it that the Countess favors my marriage proposal...or I make it known that the Marshall of Salisbury is a sodomite. How does that sound?"

Without waiting for an answer, Mark swept from the room. Herringdale slammed the door behind him, then sank back into his bed. What now, what now?

Well, as anyone who's ever been blackmailed (or seen a TV show or movie about blackmail) knows, the only effective way to deal with this sort of situation is to call the blackmailer's bluff. So it was that first thing in the morning, Herringdale requested a meeting with Countess Ellen.

As the morning sun streamed in through the glass windows of the Countess's solar, Herringdale knelt before her and confessed everything. Times like this I'm glad I downloaded that PDF of important NPCs from the Great Pendragon Campaign. Yup, Countess Ellen is in there. What's her Forgiveness? Ah, here it is: 14. ::dice clatter::


Honestly, the number of crucial crits in this campaign is getting kind of ridiculous. Lord help us when the laws of probability come snapping back in the other direction.

So it was that Ellen, despite her legendary piety and prudery, saw fit to forgive her Marshall his sins of the flesh.

"Go to King Nanteleod and propose a betrothal. Along the way, meet with Archbishop Dubricus at Carlion and confess your sins to him, and we shall consider this matter behind us."

Herringdale almost groaned. Another confession? This one was tough enough! Nevertheless, he would do as told.

"What of Prince Mark, madam?" Herringdale asked.

"I'll handle that, no worries," said Ellen. Herringdale grinned.

Two hours later, Prince Mark was storming out of Sarum hall, his entourage in tow, vowing that the next time he paid a visit to Sarum it would be with an army at his back.

And so several days later Herringdale set out with Sir Alain, bound for Estregales by way of Carlion. In that walled Roman city on the River Usk, Herringdale met with the Archbishop and unburdened his soul.

"It is well you have come to me, for your mortal soul has been in great danger," said Dubricus. Sins of the flesh are one thing, but you do greatest violence to your soul by dishonoring your marital vows. It is my understanding that the Lord has blessed you with many children. I would remind you that what the Lord giveth, he can also taketh. Honor thy marital vows and refrain from further carnal sins--with anyone--and you will go far towards winning the Lord's good graces."

Dubricus dismissed Herringdale with a further order to say 100 Hail Marys a day for a year and he would consider the matter resolved.

(I employed my limited understanding of the politics of medieval sexuality to adjudicate Dubricus's reaction here. As the Anarchy phase corresponds roughly to the 11th-century, a time when [as I understand it] sexuality and gender wasn't quite as rigidly enforced as it would be during the High Middle Ages, I figured Dubricus would take a more practical view of matters. As one of the greatest knights in the realm, Herringdale would deserve a "second chance" in the eyes of someone like the Archbishop. The tale would have played out differently in later periods.)

Herringdale and Alain soon made their way into Estregales. It was clearly a country recently ravaged by war, and it wasn't hard to find King Nanteleod's army in the field, and the cagey old King himself:

(Tip of the hat to the Cardiff Boys for inspiration on casting Nanteleod, incidentally.)

The Welsh king received Herringdale warmly, and Herringdale (with an excellent speech from Des plus an appropriately-modified Orate roll) sold the marriage proposal lock, stock, and barrel. Nanteleod happily agreed to a marriage and alliance, and made plans for marriage the year after next (he still had some campaigning to do in the north). In the meantime, as a sign of his intentions, he sent Herringdale back to Sarum with a "token" of his esteem, which consisted of two wagon-loads of treasure looted in the recent campaign (plus an escort of 20 knights to make sure the treasure made it safely).

And so we left off with Herringdale riding back to Salisbury, his goal accomplished. I've decided to implement a house rule suggested by regular commenter Eric Wilde and run the previous year's Winter Phase at the beginning of the following session, as it allows a bit of a recap and makes it so that any events generated during Winter can carry over immediately into the new year. So it remains to be seen if this winter at Broughton Hall will be as challenging as the last, but for once Herringdale seems to have come out on top of a sticky situation. Sure he made an enemy in Prince Mark, but he's gained a powerful ally, one of the strongest candidates for High King of Britain, in return. Full steam ahead...right?
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