Monday, July 26, 2010

[Solo GPC] 505: The Year of the Three Battles

In the wake of Elaine's departure, Broughton Hall was left emptier and more eerily quiet than ever. Herringdale easily secured the employ of a new steward, sending for the services of the steward of Burcombe in fact. But his youngest child, his daughter Lilo, was left without a mother and grew increasingly sad and despondent. As the snows began to fall, she grew ill. Yuletide came and went, and still Lilo languished. Countess Ellen sent her best healer trudging through the snow to Broughton, yet there was nothing to be done. Lilo had been sickly since birth, and at last the Reaper caught up with her. On a cold February night, she passed away in Herringdale's arms.

The dice dictated more cruel fate, but I chose to defer that until game play (an advantage of running the Winter Phase first!).



Again we faded in on the main action with Herringdale at Ellen's court at Sarum. (Notably, I came across a section in the rulebook on the "Progress of Salisbury" after running this adventure. Turns out, the Salisbury court is only at Sarum during the winter and for a few weeks in the spring and autumn. The rest of the year it's traveling around the county. Ah well. That is supposed to be the Earl's progress after all, so I suppose Ellen has been remaining at Sarum more than usual because of the uncertain times. Once Robert takes the throne, the proper tradition will be restored. Should provide some level of variety for the court scenes at least!) The news was looking increasingly grim.

"Ill tidings from Somerset," said Ellen. "King Idres marched to war last year and has taken the city of Wells. He is expected to return this year and complete his conquest. Meanwhile, I have had a most distressing meeting with Prince Cynric of Wessex. They have finally plucked up the courage to march against us, it seems. He gave us an ultimatum: renounce our alliance with Nanteleod and submit to King Cerdic as vassals, or Salisbury will be ravaged this summer. Cerdic says he has secured an alliance with Port and Aelle."

"Any word from King Nanteleod?" Herringdale asked.

"None yet," said Ellen.

"Then we will do our best against the Saxon dogs."

Ellen nodded grimly, fixing Herringdale with a meaningful expression.

Later that day, as he made his way around Sarum Castle, Herringdale could hear snatches of conversation among the ladies of the court.

"Is it true that the Saxons have corpses that fight in their armies now? I heard of one that rides upon a gigantic lion.”

“No one befriends lions, silly girl. Now come on, we can carry one more rock each if we keep at it.”

Two weeks passed. Sarum was ready to withstand a siege should it come to it, and all of the county's knights had assembled at the city. Then, early one morning, guards in the castle's high tower sighted a great procession of foreign knights wending their way towards Sarum from the north. The early morning sun glinted off their armor, and they could just make out the great banner they carried: it bore the arms of King Nanteleod!

The company proceeded up to the castle, where they were welcomed into Ellen's hall. At the head of the martial assemblage strode Sir Lak and Sir Alain de Carlion. They delivered simultaneous sweeping bows before Countess Ellen. Sir Alain spoke.

"My lady, I come bearing news from King Nanteleod. His army marches south as I speak. His destination is Wandborough. He has sent word with me that he will receive Salisbury's knights there. Send only your knights. Leave your footmen here to garrison your castles and manors against attack. We march against King Cerdic's army, but the King does not want to leave Salisbury vulnerable to attack from Cornwall."

So here it was at last - war! The mustering began immediately. By the following day, Salisbury's knights were ready to march. Marching at the head of fifty knights, Sir Herringdale led the assemblage north along the dirt road leading to Amesbury Abbey, thence onward towards Upavon and beyond Amobrosius' Dike to Wandborough.

As the Salisbury knights crested the final rise outside Wandborough, a grand panoply unfolded before Herringdale's eyes. King Nanteleod's vast army was encamped before the walls of the city. A riotous explosion of colorful banners and pennants fluttered from scores of tent poles, bearing the arms of nearly all the lords of Logres. Herringdale spotted large tents flying the standards of King Leodegrance of Cameliard and Duke Corneus of Lindsey. But the largest tent flew King Nanteleod's banner, and was towards there that Herringdale directed his horse. He was ushered in immediately and welcomed warmly by Nanteleod.

"My good Marshall!" Nanteleod boomed. "The might of Salisbury has now joined our serried ranks and we are ready to march against the Saxon scourge!"

He clapped Herringdale on the back and led him into the tent's main chamber. There he laid out the plan of march.

"King Cerdic will be marching into Salsibury from the southeast. We expect him to make for Sarum, but he may turn north for Silchester. We wait here to see where his army moves."

"I have reason to believe that he will be making for Sarum, sire," said Herringdale. "Prince Cynric delivered a direct threat against us earlier this year, and King Cerdic is not noted for his mercy towards those who deny him his wishes."

Nanteleod chuckled grimly. "Indeed. Then we shall march back to Sarum in two days' time."

During the preparations to march, word reached Wandborough that Cerdic's army had indeed crossed into Salisbury and was making for Sarum. Du Plain castle had been sacked and burned. Did Broughton manor still stand?

Nanteleod's army set off in a long thin strand stretched out along the snaking southern road. Herringdale and his company retraced the steps they had taken only a few days previous, passing back into Salisbury the way they had come. Progress was slower as the army was slowed by its supply train and the need to forage. After a week of marching, the army was camped near the ancient monument of Stonehenge. That night, Nanteleod convened a war council.

"I have word that King Cerdic has raised the siege of Sarum after only two days. He has obviously had news of our approach. He now marches his army northeast towards Levcomagus along the old Roman road."

"Sire," interjected Herringdale, "there may be a way we can get ahead of the Saxons and cut them off."

(This is why it's always a good idea to give your players maps of their home county)

Herringdale explained the ancient road that wended its way through the Chute Forest, emerging just south of Levcomagus.

"We'll have to backtrack to pick up the path, but once we're on it we'll have a straight shot towards the very destination that King Cerdic is marching for."

Nanteleod agreed at once and set orders to get the army turned around and marching north. By midday the following day, the lead elements of Nanteleod's force had reached the tiny manor of Haxton on the banks of the Avon River. An ancient dirt trail, seemingly as old as Britain, crossed the road at this point, and it was here that Nanteleod's forces turned east.

The King's host was stretched out in a long thin line along the trail, which was scarcely wide enough to allow two knights to ride abreast. The army rode in silence, with only the sound of armor and tack and the soft clopping of hooves on the ancient trail for accompaniment. As the light grew dim and the day drew to a close, the army camped around the woodland manor of Upperchute, one of Salisbury's remotest banneretcies. The following day the army moved out, continuing to trace its way through the Chute Forest. By midday, it had reached open farm lands and there it paused to regroup and organize. As this was going on, Nanteleod's outriders brought news of Cerdic's army approaching the outskirts of Levcomagus.

"They march under the banner of Wessex, lord," said the barefoot kern.

"Then their allies did not march with them," mused Nanteleod. "And we have the element of surprise. Sound the call! We ride at once!"

Trumpets blared as hundreds of knights took to their saddles. Thousands of hooves beat a thunderous tattoo as Nanteleod's assemblage of knights rode for Levcomagus and glory. Within two hours, Cerdic's army hove into view. More trumpet blasts signaled the charge, and Herringdale was there at the head of his company of Salisbury knights, couching his lance with the rest of them. Ahead he could see the Saxon army desperately rearranging its ranks to meet the knights' charge. Herringdale's own unit smashed into an assembly of Saxon lancers mounted on war ponies.

The lancers didn't stand a chance and were soon scattered by Herringdale's company. The Salisbury knights pushed deeper into the Saxon army, so deep in fact that they found themselves largely isolated from friendly troops. A hail of arrows rained down on them, and the screams of knights and horses could be heard. Herringdale himself barely got his shield in the way of an arrow that would have pierced the flank of his steed otherwise.

As the volley of arrows slackened, a great spine-tingling howl announced the charge of a unit of Saxon berserkers clad in bearskins and often little else. Leading the charge was a small knot of warrior women, screaming like Valkyries. Herringdale made eye contact with the leader and a surge of recognition coursed through him. It was none other than his old foe Wulfhilda, the Saxon warrioress who had nearly cloven Herringdale's skull at his very first battle and later led a raid against his manor. She looked older and even more severe than the last time he had seen her, due in part to a wicked scar that ran down the right side of her face.

Inflamed by his legendary Hatred of Saxons, Herringdale spurred his horse forward, swinging his sword over his head in a great arc as he bellowed his battle cry. Wulfhilda planted her feet wide and hefted her two-handed axe, bellowing her own fearsome cry in return. The two warriors met amidst the tumult of battle. Blades flashed and Herringdale's charge carried him clear. Looking down, he saw blood streaked on the blade of his sword. He turned in his saddle just in time to see Wulfhilda's headless body collapsing in a heap. Riding up to his side, that old warhorse Sir Leo, banner bearer of Salisbury, waved the great standard to rally the knights as other friendly units came into view nearby. Herringdale elected to push deeper into the Saxon horde as twilight approached.

Although Herringdale led his knights to further triumph against a band of veteran Saxon warriors, the encroaching darkness prevented Nanteleod's army from sealing the victory. King Cerdic's army, bloodied but not destroyed, slipped away in the night. So ended the Battle of Levcomagus.

The following day, the army moved into Levcomagus and Nanteleod took up residence in the town's castle.Sir Blaines, the castle's steward, was conspicuous in his absence, as was Herringdale's sole surviving son, who had been sent to serve Blaines as squire.

"I've had word that Duke Ulfius of Silchester is approaching. He has been warring against marauding Saxon bands and tells me that an army is forming under King Aethelswith of Anglia."

(A quick note for those following along with the text: the GPC lists the commander of the Battle of Royston as King Cerdic, but this makes no sense. Not only has Cerdic been defeated, he wouldn't be anywhere near Royston with his army. Furthermore, the following Battle of Hertford mentions Aethelswith marching to battle with his "wounded forces." As this year is subject to some of the most corrections in the GPC errata, I think this is another mistake that slipped through the editorial cracks of this rather problematically proofread year.)


"I propose we march east and link up with Duke Ulfius, then march on to Anglia to disperse this new Saxon threat."

Herringdale was all for this plan, as were the other lords. After a short pause to regroup and resupply, the army was again on the march. As London was in Saxon hands, the army, after meeting up with Ulfius's troops at Silchester, made its way over back country trails through the Chiltern Hills and into the forests of Hertford and Huntington. It was outside the town of Royston that Nanteleod's army found their quarry. They also found that they were expected.

The Saxon army had arrayed itself atop a lightly wooded hill outside Royston. The heavily forested countryside protected their flanks, and Nanteleod's army was obliged to make a frontal assault. Herringdale and his Salisbury company fared as well as the rest of the army, which is to say they acquitted themselves admirably yet, in the end, ineffectually. After only three hours of fighting, the two armies broke off. Both were bloodied and neither was gaining any ground. Only by holding the high ground and forcing the Cymric knights to fight in unfavorable terrain had the Saxon forces managed to hold their line. The next morning Nanteleod signaled a withdrawal towards Hertford.

As he rode in the column of march, Herringdale had much to consider. His company had been reduced by nearly a third thanks to battle casualties and general attrition. Moreover, many of his knights were grumbling that they had been on campaign well in excess of the standard 40 days of service, yet King Nanteleod had made no statement or indication of when he intended to call an end to the campaigning season, despite the fact that October was fast approaching.

At Hertford, Nanteleod convened his court outside in the open so that all the knights in his army could attend.

"I have called this court for two reasons," the King announced in his great booming voice. "Firstly, Sir Alain de Carlion - where are you?"

Sir Alain stepped forward and kneeled before Nanteleod.

"Long have you served me, faithfully and well," said Nanteleod. "Arise now and be recognized by all those assembled here as my son and heir."

A murmur passed through the crowd as Prince Alain stood, a solemn look on his countenance. He took his place at Nanteleod's side.

"The other matter I address to all of you here who have fought so valiantly this year. I am well aware that I have asked more of you so far than any lord has the right to expect. By the laws of the land, you are released from your bonds and are free to return home to see to your own holdings. But I ask you now, as your King: stay under my banner for just a while longer. We have not yet delivered the coup de grace to the Saxon foe, yet I feel such an opportunity is within our grasp. Stay and fight with me, brave knights of Logres!"

There was much muted conversation among the knightly ranks. Herringdale knew as well as the rest that staying on would mean funding further expenses out of pocket. But Nanteleod's words had moved him. He stepped forward and drew his sword. Saluting Nanteleod, he announced, "I shall march with you, sire. For as long as it takes."

Nanteleod smiled. Other lords, including King Leodegrance and Duke Corneus, made similar pledges. Still, many like Earl Sanam did not. Over the next few days, banner by banner, whole chunks of Nanteleod's army evaporated. After a week, nearly half his army had departed. Herringdale did not begrudge them their decisions. Indeed, many of his own knights had elected to return to Salisbury. Rightfully so, Herringdale mused. Many knights lived hand to mouth, and could not afford to finance further military adventures. Or they had families and households to return to... Herringdale shook the thought from his head and focused on the latest list of provisions his quartermaster had brought to him.

Another week passed and Nanteleod's army was at last ready to march. They moved from Hertford into Essex, where they raided Saxon farmsteads and set fire to Saxon fortresses. The army of Essex proved unable to stop the raiders' progress. Here and there units put up a show of resistance, but they were quickly and easily dispersed. Finally, as October drew to an end amidst almost constant rain, word reached Nanteleod that the army of Anglia, still smarting from the earlier Battle of Royston, was marching south to again engage the Cymric knights. It was what Nanteleod had been hoping for, and he led his army back towards Hertford.

It was outside that walled city that the final, decisive battle of the year took place. Again, like at Royston, the battle was over after a scant three hours, but this time it was thanks to Nanteleod laying low the Aethelswith, King of the Angles. The Saxon army broke, and the knights of Logres stood victorious on the battlefield.

Nanteleod marched his army back to Sarum, where he made plans to winter. The mood at Ellen's court was jovial and joyful. The Saxons had been turned back not once, but twice! The threat from Wessex was neutralized (for the time being), and the most powerful Saxon kingdom was without a king. Yet the countess also bore some ill news for Herringdale. She summoned a rude-looking footman to bear witness.

"Well, your ladyship, I was at Du Plain castle when the Saxons attacked," said the man, nervously fumbling with his cap. "They swarmed us from every which way, and a traitor within opened the gates. I was knocked cold and left for dead, but not before, well..." He glanced at Herringdale. "Not before I saw the Marshall's son fall in battle. He died well, sir. Defending his lord, Sir Blaines, from a Saxon what tried to stab him in the back. I am terribly sorry to bring you this news, sir," he said, his head bowed.

"As you may be aware, Sir Blaines has disappeared," said Ellen. "It could be that he perished with your son; Du Plain castle was raised to the ground, its old shell keep pulled down. Many of the bodies within were burned beyond recognition..."

There was a pause. Then Ellen continued: "With Sir Blaines missing and presumed dead, I hearby reassert my ancestral claim on Du Plain castle and pass it to you, Marshall Herringdale. It is yours in perpetuity on the following condition: that you construct a mighty castle on the site of the old, one that will stand against any invading force and secure Salisbury's western border."

"My lady," Herringdale said, numb with the shock of losing his only remaining son.

"Furthermore," said the Countess, "my son Robert will see his fifteenth winter this year. He is ready to begin his training as a squire. I entrust him to you, Marshall Herringdale."

Again Herringdale bowed. Perhaps the Countess had given him Robert as some small means to replace his dead son? If so, the gesture was appreciated.

Later, after other official business of court had been attended to, at Nanteleod's command Herringdale gave an account of the Saxon campaign to the assembled court. When he got to the part about Nanteleod naming Sir Alain as his heir, he couldn't help but notice a shadow pass over Countess Ellen's face. Whatever was bothering her, however, she set aside for the time being. She ordered a grand feast to be laid out, and Herringdale indulged as he hadn't in many a year. In more ways than one, as it turned out...

First, he failed his Temperate roll and made his Indulgent. Deep into his cups, he initiated and reciprocated flirtations with Prince Alain and Sir Lak. Making his Flirtation roll, he proceeded to make his Lustful roll.

"But with which one?" Des mused. We let the dice decide. I allowed for three possibilities, and lo and behold we came up with the "more's the merrier" option. So it was that the morning dawned with Herringdale waking up on a blanket in a secluded vale not far from Sarum. Nearby slumbered Alain and Lak. Groaning with his hangover, he rose slowly and began getting dressed. Silently, Alain joined him, then Lak. The three knights bid each other a cordial goodbye and Herringdale rode back to Sarum alone. The vow he had made to Archbishop Dubricus had been broken. But what did it matter? Could he really be counted as a married man anymore, with his wife run away and living with a Saxon churl in the woods like a savage Pict? And with the loss of two of his children in the last year, did he not deserve to revel in hedonistic pursuits, the better to forget his troubles? To hell with self-denial!

We ended the year with Herringdale returning to Broughton with two squires, Baldrick and the young Robert. While the knights of Salisbury had been busy fighting Saxons, King Idres had continued his campaign against Somerset. The wily King Cadwy had refused to get drawn into open battle, however, and Idres had had to content himself with besieging and taking the main cities of Bath and Bristol. Despite the fact that Cornwall now controlled all of Somerset's great cities and castles, the county remained undefeated, its army laying low in the marshes and fens, waiting for aid to come to them. During its siege of Bath, the Cornish army had raided western Salisbury for provisions. This was provocation enough for Nanteleod, who had promised to come to Somerset's aid next year.

So it was to be war with Cornwall now. Herringdale was glad of it. His home brought little comfort these days, and the promise of battle brought the promise of distraction from his shattered family life. And if he should happen to cross swords with the treacherous Prince Mark, so much the better. Upon arriving back at Broughton, he had plans to commission the construction of a mighty reinforced motte-and-bailey castle at Du Plain...



...but first he had one stop to make. Unlike Sir Blaines, Herringdale's son's body had been recovered and identified. He had word that his son was buried in the churchyard of Du Plain village, and there he stopped. As the late autumn rain began to fall, he stood by his son's grave, reflecting on the losses of the previous year. Who now would carry on the family name?
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