This was a year in which legends were born.
Yes indeed, among bards and court poets the tale of Sir Herringdale's encounter with the Giant of Burcombe would soon become a well loved and oft told tale. Among wags and gossips, behind the scenes and in hushed tones, the tale of what had awaited Herringdale when he returned home and the events that soon transpired would become an even greater topic for conversation. And in later years, the coming of the bandit known as Bright Flame would become the stuff of folk mythology among peasants, particularly the Saxon folk of the old kingdoms who longed to throw off the reign of the Cymric king known as Arthur.
But enough foreshadowing. Things are gloomy enough for Salisbury without casting more shadows.
Although now secure in an alliance with Britain's most promising and powerful of the would-be High Kings, Salisbury remained vulnerable. Separated from the rest of King Nanteleod's lands by the neutral county of Somerset (in danger of falling to Cornwall any time now) the fear of an attack from King Cerdic of Wessex remained palpable. The fall of London the previous year left Countess Ellen's court staggered and fraught with worry. Yet no Saxon troops marched from the south and east. Not yet at least. Only from the Camelot Forest have come increased bandit attacks, raids striking at lone travelers and small merchant caravans mostly. Survivors of these attacks describe a rough looking leader, possibly of Saxon peasant stock, who seems remarkably deft with a bow. Local lords have so far proven unable to track the bandit chief and his band, who always manage to fade back into the forest before the proper authorities can be mustered.
As we finished up an uneventful Winter Phase and moved into the main action, Countess Ellen was in the middle of tasking Herringdale with hunting down and eliminating the growing bandit threat in the Camelot Forest.
"We believe this is the same bandit gang that accosted your wife some years ago when you were away in the Forest Sauvage," said Ellen.
Herringdale was quiet for a moment, the question not registering with him. Then he said, his eyebrows raised, "I'm sorry, my lady, what did you say?"
"Your wife," said Ellen. "Surely she told you..."
There was an awkward pause. Ellen's hall was full of courtiers, and no one spoke.
The moment was broke by the announcement from Ellen's steward of a knight bearing a message from King Nanteleod himself. All business was set aside to welcome the messenger immediately to Sarum's hall. Herringdale, still unsure what to think, put the business about Elaine out of his head for the time being.
A decade ago, Herringdale had met Lak when he was a young squire and strapping youth. The two had flirted, but nothing anymore untoward had occurred. In light of the vow he had made to Archbishop Dubricus, Herringdale had no intention of continuing their flirtations now that Lak was grown.
As Lak began to speak to the Countess, his eyes darted to Herringdale. The slightest hint of a wry smile told Herringdale that he had been recognized as well.
"My lady," Sir Lak said, "I have come bearing a message from your husband, King Nanteleod. As you know, he is currently still in the north, having taken the homage Lindsey. Unfortunately, there are still many roving bands of Saxon marauders and petty lords who refuse to acknowledge our king's right to rule. That he will prevail in pacifying these elements, there can be little doubt. But these things take time, as I am sure you can appreciate.
"Our King has sent me to inform you that he intends to march south at the earliest opportunity, but that you should not expect him until after the next snow's melt."
The Countess took this report with a sort of stone-faced resignation. Salisbury would be on its own for at least another year.
"We shall have to look to our own defenses until the King comes," said the Countess. "Somerset will have to do the best it can on its own if King Idres marches against it."
Having received the King's news, Herringdale prepared to ride to the south end of Salisbury to look into the ongoing bandit attacks. Starting on the east side of the county at Vagon Castle, he gradually made his along the string of manors and villages that lined the edge of the Camelot Forest. But it wasn't until he reached the holding of Burcombe that he encountered anything unusual.
"Vandalism, my lord, that's all there is to it!" said the manor's steward. It was growing dark outside and Herringdale was digesting the modest feast that had been laid out for him at Burcombe manor house. The steward, who had welcomed the Marshall warmly, had been telling of troubles that had begun over the previous fortnight. It seemed that the branch of the Ebble River that the manor's village was situated along had begun to rise, flooding the nearest fields and threatening to drown all of the village's cropland in a few more days' time.
"And not a drop of rain this past month, by faith!" the steward was saying. "It all started right around the time that Ry the Shepherd moved his flock out onto the wastelands south of the village. He has too many sheep to graze on the commons, so he was granted permission to move his flock out there. It's no good for farming, they say. Too many rocks and stones."
Based on this information, Herringdale elected to head out to the south field at first light in the morning. On his way out of the village the next day, he met with the parish priest and a town elder in the village church.
"It's evil spirits, lord!" wheezed the elder as he crossed himself.
The priest nodded solemnly. "It may well be the work of the Devil. Some of my parish have sworn to me that a dam of massive stones is being raised in the river, bit by bit, every night. The stones are far too big for even a team of men and oxen to move, let alone set in the fast-flowing stream of the river."
No longer suspecting bandit activity, Herringdale was nonetheless intrigued, and rode on to the pastureland with the steward and priest in tow. Arriving there, he found a quiet, pastoral meadow stretching over several acres. Far off in the distance, the rush of the river could be heard. At the far end of the field, a small rudely constructed hut stood. Sheep were grazing here and there, scattered across the pasture among massive stone formations. The ground was soft and damp from the overflowing river water seeping in.
"That's old Ry's cottage," said the priest, indicating the hut. "He disappeared about a week ago. Ran off in a hurry, or so it seems. He was one of the first to report the stones appearing in the river."
Herringdale asked to see the stones, and reluctantly the priest led him to a point about a half-mile past Ry's cottage. Sure enough, the river was being stopped up by a massive dam constructed from what looked like the stones in the pasture. The ride to this point along the river had shown signs of flooding, but here the river had clearly burst its banks; many trees were inundated up to four or five feet above their roots.
"These stones only appear at night, you say?" Herringdale shouted back to the priest, who had remained some distance back.
"So they say!" he replied.
"Then there's nothing for it but to pitch my tent in this very spot and see what the night shall bring," Herringdale muttered to himself. Riding back towards the priest, he said, "I am going to stay the night out here and see who's behind this deviltry. If you can spare any men from the village, I would appreciate it."
The priest, somewhat drained of color, nodded, his jowls flapping, and turned his mule about to head back for the village.
Within a half-hour, Baldrick had pitched Herringdale's tent in a secluded glen downriver from the dam with an excellent view. The knight and his squire built a fire and sat back to wait for sundown. The hours passed, and still no one came from the village. Just as twilight was approaching, however, a half-dozen youths came walking down alongside the river. Each had some kind of farming tool slung over his shoulder - hoes, scythes, rakes, and pitchforks.
"The priest forbade anyone from coming to aid, sire," said one. "But we snuck away anyway."
Herringdale smiled broadly and offered them a seat around his fire. He passed the next couple hours answering their questions about his many adventures, then suggested they set up a watch schedule. With eight men, each could take an hour's watch through the course of the night. Herringdale volunteered to take the next to last watch, the darkest part of the night.
So it was that seven hours later he was awoken by one of the village lads. Slipping on his sword, he made his way out into the dark woods and took a seat on a fallen log. He couldn't see very well, but he could hear the river trickling over the rocks of the dam, the much-reduced stream flowing by not far away.
Some minutes passed in total silence. The whole of the woods was asleep, it seemed. Then a flock of thrushes noisily took wing and Herringdale pricked up his ears. Subtly, he could make out a rhythmic booming sound. It grew increasingly loud, then suddenly became a terrific sloshing, splashing noise. Squinting through the darkness, Herringdale could just make it out: a figure of a man standing about 15 feet tall, carrying a massive stone, moving out into the middle of the river. As he watched, the giant, standing waist-deep in the flooded river, laid the rock down on the dam with an audible grunt.
Plucking up his Valor, Herringdale rose and walked towards the creature. It was straightening up, regarding its placement of the newest stone. Suddenly its head jerked up. Herringdale knew it was looking right at him.
It started to wade through the water towards him.
Standing his ground, Herringdale responded in as authoritative a voice as he could muster.
"I am Sir Herringdale, Marshall and Protector of Salisbury! By what right do you lay stones to build a dam across this river?"
Geest pulled to a stop about 10 feet away, sending water washing over Herringdale's boots. The giant seemed puzzled, maybe even curious, that he had been spoken to in such a way, although in the darkness it was kind of hard to read his expressions.
"GEEST MAKE DAM TO PUNISH HUMANS!" the giant rumbled in a voice that sounded like rocks rubbing together.
"Why do you want to punish them?" Herringdale asked.
"HUMANS PUT FURRY CREATURES IN GEEST'S HOME. GEEST TRY TO CRUSH, BUT CREATURES TOO FAST AND HUMAN RUN AWAY. NOW GEEST FLOOD HUMAN HOMES AND SEE HOW THEY LIKE IT!"
"Furry creatures? You mean sheep?"
Herringdale almost laughed. "Very well then. If I make the, eh, furry creatures go away, do you promise in turn to take this dam down?"
Again Geest nodded. "GEEST GIVE YOU TIL NEXT MOONRISE."
With that, he sloshed up out of the river and rumbled back towards the pasture. Herringdale turned to see the village youths all gathered outside the tent, nervously gripping their farm tools.
"Don't worry lads," Herringdale said. "There'll be no need for bloodshed tonight."
Looking somewhat relieved, the youths nevertheless elected to stay up the rest of the night, and at first light they headed for home faster than if the Devil himself was in pursuit. Herringdale, meanwhile, also headed back to the village, although at a more leisurely pace. There he rounded up a couple villagers who knew how to herd sheep and took them back to the pasture. He ordered them to take Ry's flock back to the commons for the time being.
As the men worked, Herringdale regarded the stone piles from the back of his horse. As he looked at the rocks in the morning light, he began to see distinctly humanoid shapes. It was a bit like cloud-watching, except in this case the forms did not change shape. Two or three of the larger piles distinctly resembled giant versions of the shape of a crouching or kneeling man.
Smiling to himself, Herringdale rode back to the village. The next morning, a ride out to the river confirmed the water level was already going back down, and riding down the bank he eventually got to the spot where the dam had been. It now lay in two stoney piles on either side of the river bank, a new landmark that would no doubt prove of great consternation and fascination to geologists in later centuries.
Riding back to the village one last time, Herringdale proceeded over a fair and equitable division of Ry's flock. Whatever had become of the shepherd, he obviously wasn't coming back. With a final warning to the villagers to never graze their sheep in the southern pastures again, he rode on.
Over the next week, Herringdale scoured the villages along the edge of the woods, but he could find no leads to the elusive bandit. Finally, having reached the eastern boundary of the county, he decided to turn north and head for home.
Herringdale arrived back at Broughton Hall tired and ready to rest. Elaine greeted him as always and ushered him into the manor's hall, commenting on his obvious fatigue as she did so.
"I shall serve you personally tongiht, my lord," she told him, dismissing the servants with a wave. Herringdale gratefully sat down in his great chair and Elaine was soon back at his side, proffering a clay tankard of Broughton's famous mead. Herringdale gratefully drank it down in three gulps. Wiping his lips, he tucked into the beef stew that Elaine had ladled into his trencher.
As he ate, however, he began to feel worse. The fatigue was catching up with him, it seemed. Only halfway through the meal, he rose unsteadily from his seat, his vision swimming a bit.
"Bed..." he murmured.
He stumbled up to his private chamber, pulling his clothes off as he went. Elaine followed behind, picking up the discarded garments. Entering his chamber, he passed the mutilated mosaic of Sir Jordans and collapsed into bed.
"Oh my," Elaine murmured, a crease in her forehead, "you don't look well at all. I will send for a chirurgeon."
She bustled from the room and Herringdale was left alone, covered in clammy sweat. He could barely focus on his surroundings and wasn't entirely sure how much time passed before Elaine returned with a hooded figure. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered how she had been able to find a chirurgeon so quickly this late in the day.
The figure moved forward, pulling his hood back. Herringdale squinted up at him, again confronted with the distinct feeling he'd seen this person somewhere before. Grim-faced and mean-countenanced, he did not look like a healer. Then Herringdale noticed his hands - they were rough and dirty and bore the callouses distinctive to an archer. Then it all came rushing back.
"I left you for dead..." Herringdale murmured.
"I survived, and I will carry the scar you gave me until the day I die," said the man in a rough Saxon accent. It was the archer that Herringdale had struck down in the woods, slashed across the back, when he had fought the Knight of Tusks. He looked to Elaine. Her face was a mask of cold fury.
"This is no more than you deserve, husband," she said, nearly spitting out the word. Then she really did spit, onto the ruins of the mosaic.
"You?" Herringdale rasped.
"Yes, I," said Elaine. "It's the talk of the court, you know. Your sodomite infidelity. It was bound to reach my ears even though you do your best to keep me hidden away in this forsaken backwater! And you weren't even here to protect me when...when..."
She trailed off. So what Countess Ellen had said was true.
"You were attacked!" said Herringdale, incredulous.
"I was. And afterward I found myself with child. I took herbs to purge myself of the bastard, and I nearly died. But none of this you saw, for you were off galavanting through the forest, no doubt on some sinful errand or another."
Ignoring the image of the Gallant of Sauvage that flashed in his head, Herringdale looked at the Saxon bandit.
"It was you, I suppose, that assaulted my wife?"
He nodded, a grim smile on his face.
"He may have assaulted me at first," Elaine said, tears brimming in her eyes, "but I have since given myself willingly to him. How does that make you feel, dear husband?" she asked, her voice rising to a mocking laugh.
Her mask was starting to break, but she regained her composure. The bandit looked to her and she nodded. He moved towards Herringdale, a dagger in his hand, ready to finish the job that Elaine's poison had begun. They had both failed to notice, however, that during Elaine's tirade Herringdale had slipped his hand under his pillow, where he always kept a small dagger (it pays to be prepared, after all).
As the bandit moved in for the kill, Herringdale struck like a snake. Inspired by his Hate: Saxons passion, his dagger bit deeply into the Saxon's thigh, just missing the gonads. Herringdale twisted the blade and the bandit fell back, screaming and clutching his bleeding leg. Elaine ran to the chamber's large glass window. Throwing it wide, she beckoned her lover to come to it. Simultaneously, the door flew open and two of Herringdale's footmen stood in the doorway, clutching spears and looking bewildered at the scene before them.
Flashing Herringdale a wry smile, the ashen-faced bandit tumbled from the window. A second later, Herringdale heard a splash as the bandit landed in the manor's moat. Elaine gave her husband a final look, part scornful, part sorrowful, then also jumped.
The footmen ran to the window. A third ran in, knocking an arrow in his bow.
"There's about a dozen men on horses out there, m'lord," said one of the guards. "The Lady Elaine is being helped onto a horse..." They were clearly at a loss as to what to do.
"Let them go," Herringdale said. "T'is no more than I deserve."
He rolled over and stared at the ruined mosaic. From outside, the sound of galloping hooves could be heard. So that was it. As with her first husband, Elaine had taken up with a commoner and tried to murder her spouse. But Herringdale had survived to live with the misery of knowing the part he played in her actions. He wondered - was Elaine's first husband similarly guilty of heinous crimes?
(Des replaced Herringdale's "Loyalty: Elaine" with a "Hate: Elaine" passion of equal measure. We'll see if Hate trumps Mercy if ever the couple should be reunited. As our next Winter Phase would show, this was only the beginning of Herringdale's family woes. But that's a tale for another day.)