Winter passed into spring and life returned to the county of Salisbury. As May got under way, at the realm's far eastern corner, construction on the new, improved Du Plain Castle resumed, with the castle's chief engineer assuring its soon-to-be lord, Sir Herringdale, Marshall of Salisbury, that the castle would be fit to move into by the end of the year. Meanwhile, back at Broughton Hall, Herringdale was entertained by the jongleur troupe he sponsored. As always, they were a source of juicy gossip gathered from all corners of the land. This year, they brought him the welcome news that King Nanteleod was moving behind the scenes, attempting to orchestrate a reconvening of the Supreme Collegium so that he could be officially proclaimed High King.
Meanwhile, in Sarum, the mighty King Nanteleod himself and his wife, Countess Ellen of Salisbury, made plans for the coming war with Cornwall. Nanteleod wanted to take his troops west into Somerset to avenge Cornish raids against Salisbury the year previous and to come to the aid of Somerset's King Cadwy, who was lying low in his land's abundant marshes.
Marshall Herringdale was summoned to Sarum's hall to discuss the best course of action. In a meeting with Nanteleod, it was agreed that most of Salisbury's knights should march west to Somerset. With the Saxons at each other's throats after the defeats of the previous year, it was deemed safe to risk leaving the county exposed.
Herringdale knew he was taking a risk, summoning all his vassals to march with him. But Nanteleod had given him a most important task: march into the Somerset marshes and locate the army of King Cadwy, which had been lying low for over a year, vexing the numerically-superior Cornish forces that pursued it. Even in Salisbury the marshes of Avalon held a fell and evil reputation. Herringdale felt that he was going to need all the help he could get, and a large body of troops was less likely to suffer at the hands of some of the marshes' more unsavory inhabitants. Or so he hoped...
The muster was issued, and within a week Sir Herringdale was marching at the head of a mighty company of knights. Sir Lycus was still recovering from grievous wounds he had received in the previous year's battles, but Herringdale's stalwart friend and vassal Sir Leo marched at his side, as did Sir Jaradan and nearly 50 other knights. Along with their squires, baggage train, and camp followers, the company stretched out in a long line marching west through the green Salisbury countryside. At Vagon castle, the Salisbury company met up with Nanteleod's assembled forces. The northern vassals had not sent their knights this year, and even the southern vassals had kept many of their men-at-arms at home in the face of Saxon and Cornish threats. However, although a shadow of the mighty host the King had mustered the year before, it was still a formidable fighting force.
Nanteleod met with Herringdale in Vagon's timbered hall and informed him of the plan: they were all to march west into the Selwood along the old royal road. Nanteleod would take his army north to Warminster, thence on to Bath, which was currently held by Idres' Cornishmen. Nanteleod, who did not wish to engage Idres in open battle with his reduced forces, planned to invest Bath and await the arrival of King Cadwy and his Somerset army. That was where Herringdale came in. He was to continue with his company west through the Selwood towards Wells and then enter the Somerset marshes.
"Wells is also held by the enemy, but they dare not venture beyond the city walls for fear of ambush by the hostile populace. Bear my standard proudly and proclaim your mission in every village and manor you pass by, and I am sure you will find yourself directed towards Cadwy's army in due course."
The next day, the army was under way. After three days' march, Nanteleod took the northern branch road that would take him towards Warminster while Herringdale continued along the crumbling Roman road through the ancient Selwood. Five days later, he and his company stood at the crossroads that lay outside the city of Wells. Herringdale could just make out the massive banners of King Idres draped above the city gates about a quarter-mile away. Heeding Nanteleod's advice, he turned his company south along the intersecting road and made towards marsh country.
Along the way, he inquired at every manor hall he passed after the location of King Cadwy. Most of the manors were staffed by stewards or ladies, their lords being off with the King in the marshes somewhere, and the best they could do was to provide vague directions. "Follow this trail west, thence south for a half-day..." and so forth. Soon enough Herringdale's company was off the main road and making its way along backroads and trails. Woods and farmland were quickly giving way to vast, reedy fields punctuated by great brackish pools of water.
Herringdale was growing worried. This was swiftly becoming eminently unfavorable countryside for knights. The ground of the dirt trails they followed was becoming increasingly spongy and damp. Several times a day the entire company was obliged to dismount and lead its horses through particularly boggy stretches of countryside, surrounded on both sides by long expanses of water. The wagons in the baggage train were fairing even more poorly, and progress was slowing to a crawl. Worse still, steadings and manors were becoming fewer and farther between; the odds of finding someone who could provide helpful directions were becoming slimmer and slimmer.
After three days of trudging into the marshes, the hand of the Salisbury company was forced at dawn. Because of the boggy, water-logged land, the company was camped in a long thin line along the trail it was following. As Herringdale and his men were making ready to march, striking tents and loading up saddle bags, cries of alarm were raised from several knights and squires. Looking out into the marshland to the north, Herringdale could see about two dozen knights slogging through the waist-deep water. They bore spears and swords in hand, and seemed geared for war, yet they came on slowly, as if engaged in a casual march. Even as he watched, one or two of the knights took a tumble into the water only to pull himself back up despite the weight of his armor.
Slightly unnerved, Herringdale stepped forward to the edge of the trail, his mailed feet sinking slightly into the muck. In the predawn light, it was hard to make out details, but he was fairly certain none of the knights bore a crest or device upon their shields. In fact, as they drew closer, Herringdale could make out their dented, battered shields were mostly covered in the muck and mud of the marshes, and their armor and blades were rusted and pitted. Bandit knights perhaps? Or could this be King Cadwy's men? Somehow he didn't think so.
At this point, a slight breeze kicked up and immediately wafted the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh over the Salisbury knights. Retching slightly, Herringdale backpedaled up onto the trail, drawing his sword as he did so.
"In the name of King Nanteleod and Marshall Herringdale of Salisbury, declare yourselves or we shall cut you down!" bellowed Sir Leo. None of the ragged knights responded except to continue their mechanistic march towards the trail. From all along the line came the sound of swords being drawn and spears readied behind shields. Every knight was watching tensely as the knights drew closer, waiting for Herringdale's signal to attack.
Herringdale didn't stop running until he reached a hillock of relatively dry ground. Heaving himself up out of the water, he lay gasping, staring up at the bright morning sky. The sounds of battle had long since faded, and as he propped himself up and looked around, Herringdale found that he was accompanied only by his two squires, Baldrick and Robert. What fate had befallen his company, he could not say. Worse, he realized that he was now completely lost.
After resting for a bit, the knight and his squires ventured back into the muck of the marshes, picking their way as best they could along game trails and shallows, avoiding the deeper portions of water as much as possible. They walked for hours, mostly in silence save for their ragged breathing. Only the occasional sound of a marsh bird taking wing disturbed the absolute quiet that reigned over the marshes. They did not talk.
Unfortunately, as the tor got closer, the water got deeper. Soon it was above Herringdale's waist, and he could tell it would soon be up to his armpits if he continued forward. At that point even the slightest slip or stumble would put him under water, weighed down by his armor and sure to drown. He stood, helplessly casting about, looking for another, more sure route to the tor. He saw nothing. Then Robert spoke up.
"My lord! A boat approaches!"
Sure enough, cutting through the reeds was a small boat with a single occupant standing at the stern, punting it through the water. It was a lady and she was dressed in rich furs and fine fabrics. Her long auburn hair, uncovered and loose, flowed down over her shoulders and down her back. As she drew closer, Herringdale took in the details of her face; it bore an unfathomable expression but was also quite striking in its features. She looked vaguely familiar.
Then he remembered - he had seen this lady many years ago. It was in London on a snowy winter evening at the city's White Tower. She had been part of the party that had fled with Duke Gorlas and his wife Igraine from King Uther's creepy, clingy attention. Herringdale had attempted to pursue the party, but had become lost in an unnaturally blinding blizzard outside the city gates.
Herringdale was shaken from his reverie as the boat drew up alongside him.
Herringdale glanced at his squires. They looked as uncertain as he felt. Looking back at the lady, he made up his mind.
"I thank you, my lady," he said, then heaved himself into the boat as she held it steady with the punt. His squires followed in short order, and they were off, back towards the tor.
At the base of the hill was a small landing leading to a switchback trail which traced its way up the hillside. The lady led them up the trail to the tower, where they were all welcomed by a trio of comely maidens. The young women tended to the lady, taking her robe and offering her a silver goblet which she took a drink from. She offered the goblet to Herringdale. He hesitated, then took the goblet. If she noticed the hesitation, the lady, who her maidens had addressed as Lady Nineve, gave no indication. Herringdale took a sip and felt warmth course through is chilled frame and aching muscles.
Nineve led Herringdale into a modest chamber lit by many tallow candles and warmed by a brazier of hot coals. She entreated the knight and his squires to slip out of their wet things; dry robes were laid out, and they were left in peace for a half-hour.
At length, Nineve returned and seated herself on a chair near the window. Beyond her, the sky was quickly turning indigo. Two of Nineve's maidens brought in a pewter tray laden with meats and other delicacies. Herringdale and his squires tucked in hungrily. Nineve did not eat, but sat quietly watching her guests have their fill.
"What brings you here, sir knight?" she inquired at length.
Herringdale decided to give Nineve the whole story. When he got to the part about the corpse-knights, she sat up straighter, her eyes blazing.
"I am sorry to say that you ran afoul of the minions of Gardeth, a Saxon necromancer who is shunned even by his own people. He has come to our marshes now to practice his foul arts, and his destruction is one of my dearest wishes. His corpse-knights are fearsome foes indeed. I shouldn't think that any of your vassals who stood their ground are still alive. The unluckiest among them now march with Gardeth's other corpse-knights unless I am much mistaken."
Baldrick and Robert, their faces ashen, exchanged stricken looks, but Herringdale merely nodded. He continued with the remainder of his story, ending with his sighting of Glastonbury tor.
"It so happens that I know where King Cadwy's army dwells," Nineve said as Herringdale wrapped up his tale. "I can guide you there, but I ask a favor in return. With Gardeth's minions at large in the marshes, it is hardly safe to go about without an escort. I have a call to make that is in the direction of Cadwy and his vassals. Will you escort me on this errand?"
"Of course, that is only fair," said Herringdale with a courteous nod.
"Then we depart in the morning. See that you get a good rest; besides Gardeth, there are many strange wonders in these marshes and it is best to travel with one's wits gathered."
With that Nineve departed from the room. A nearby trunk provided sleeping furs, and soon Herringdale was passed out next to the warm brazier, lost in dreamless sleep.
The next morning, Herringdale and his squires were awoken by a knock at the chamber door. The same maidens from the night before, blushing and giggling slightly, brought in bread, cheese, and spiced wine for breakfast. Robert grinned stupidly at the maidens, a bit of cheese stuck to his oblvious chin. Herringdale ate quickly, then donned his still-damp armor. He met Nineve at the door of the tower, where she was prepared to depart. Back down the switchback trail she led him, then into the boat again. Her maidens accompanied her this time, and the boat was loaded to capacity when everyone had clambered aboard. Nevertheless, it rode high and stable in the water as Nineve punted it across the marsh for nearly an hour. In time, the bottom of the boat scraped against muddy earth. Nearby, Herringdale could make out a narrow trail snaking its way through the tall marsh grass.
"This trail leads to the dwelling of a dear old friend of mine who has been ill for some time now," Nineve said. With no other preamble, she debarked from the boat, her maidens in tow, and began walking down the trail. Herringdale and his squires hastened to catch up. Casting one last look back, he could just make out Glastonbury tor rising above the morning mists, several miles distant.
Soon the marsh grasses gave way to scattered clumps of hardy bushes and trees. The ground seemed to grow firmer as well, much to Herringdale's relief. As the sun began to climb into the sky, the mist lifted and his armor began to dry properly at last. At midday, the party reached a fork in the trail. Nineve rubbed her chin thoughtfully.
"It has been some years since I came this way, and I don't remember this fork. Let us pause to rest and I will think on the best way to proceed."
While they ate, chatting quietly, a whistling marsh resident came around a bend in the trail they had been following. He was dressed in mud-caked rags, his face lined and ruddy. The party stopped talking and watched him approach. He stopped and bowed before them.
"Good day to you all, ladies and gentle sirs!" he said in a nearly impenetrable marsh accent. "May I be of any assistance to your esteemed selves this day?"
"As a matter of fact..." Nineve said. She proceeded to explain her dilemma to the beggar, who nodded thoughtfully, stroking his stubbled chin.
"It just so happens I know the right way to the cabin," he said, "but before I tell you I must ask a favor in return. The nights here in the marshes are still chill and damp, and I have recently lost my cloak. Might I trouble one of you for a cloak in return for directions?"
Nineve nodded at Herringdale, who stood and unclasped his cloak. He Generously handed it to the beggar, who swept it around his shoulders. Much to Herringdale's surprise, the cloak barely covered one of the beggars shoulders! The little man was half Herringdale's size, and his cloak was normally quite capacious.
"You call this a cloak!?" the beggar exclaimed in disgust. Somewhat miffed, Herringdale commanded Baldrick to hand over his own cloak. This second cloak still failed to cover the beggar completely, so young Robert was in turn compelled to hand his own cloak over. Finally, the beggar was covered and he provided the directions as promised. Thanking him, Nineve proceeded along the indicated path, her escort trailing behind.
The remainder of the day passed without incident. The second day, the party proceeded into increasingly wild and wooded territory. The trail continued to wend its way through thick growths of brambles and trees and there was no sign of civilization as far as the eye could see. It therefore came as some surprise to Herringdale when, after several hours of walking, the party came upon a small group of noblewomen enjoying a repast in a sun-dappled clearing. Nearby their pages and handmaidens waited silently with the horses. What they were doing out in the middle of nowhere unescorted, Herringdale could not fathom. As he came closer, the ladies rose and the tallest among them stepped forward. She was quite striking in appearance: her hair was platinum blond, her skin white as fine porcelain, and her clothes were all of white silk.
"I am Lady Blanche de Blanche," she said. "My ladies and I were just discussing what makes a good man. Would you care to enlighten them?" she asked Herringdale, a quizzical smile on her pretty face.
Herringdale's eyebrows arched in surprise. "What makes you think I am the good man you seek?" he asked modestly. "It is not my place to say what makes a good man, but only to act in the manner I think a good man should."
The ladies exchanged approving looks and Lady Blanche de Blanche smiled. "Thank you, good sir knight."
The party pressed on and made camp some hours later in a pleasant clearing, where they passed an uneventful night. The next day they continued on. The terrain by now was mostly woodland interspersed with more meadows. It being late spring, the meadows were overgrown with wildflowers of all varieties. At one point, the party entered a clearing that was filled with some of the most unusual flowers Herringdale had ever seen. They were poppies of the deepest crimson red, and they gave off an almost overwhelming bouquet that hung heavy in the air despite the gentle breeze that wafted through the meadow.
After an uneventful afternoon and evening, the party set off on the fourth day, entering a stretch of dense, mist-shrouded woodland. It was still mid-morning when the party reached a modest thatch-roof cottage nestled among a stand of mighty oaks. Asking everyone to wait outside, Nineve proceeded into the cottage alone. Some time passed and she re-emerged, her face grim.
"She is beyond my skills to heal. She is in tremendous pain and has asked to be released."
With that, she and her maidens began gathering herbs and preparing a concoction. Herringdale stood by, watching curiously. Soon, they had a small tincture prepared, which Nineve added to a wooden cup full of water collected from a nearby stream. Singing a beautiful song, the women then proceeded into the cottage, Nineve leading the way, bearing the cup in both hands. Herringdale listened as the heavenly melody drifting out of the cottage for several minutes more. The song came to an end at last, and Nineve re-emerged with her maidens.
"It is done," she said simply. "I will take you to King Cadwy now."
The party walked on in silence. Herringdale reflected on the quality of mercy versus the right of any but God to determine when it was time for one to die. He knew what his local priest and Archbishop Dubricus would have to say on the subject, but having witnessed Nineve's mercy he was not sure if he'd agree with the Church's official position.
These deep and heady thoughts carried Herringdale along the woodland trail as it gradually became increasingly marshy. The trees again began to thin out and give way to clumps of brush and expanses of tall marsh grass. As the sun dipped low over the horizon, several men in leather armor bearing long spears seemed to emerge from the grass like ghosts. Surrounded by a circle of spear points, Nineve told the pickets who she was and why she was taking Herringdale to Cadwy. The Somerset men nodded and raised their weapons, leading Nineve and Herringdale off the path and along a nearly invisible game trail. If he had been escorted, Herringdale knew he would have soon become lost.
After nearly an hour of walking, the group came upon a clearing formed by a small hillock. The hillock was encircled by a wooden palisade, and as he passed through the gate, Herringdale saw a small army camped out within the walls. He quickly estimated that nearly 100 knights and perhaps five times that many footmen were living here on this small, walled hillock. Most were living in tents, but some buildings had been erected along the interior of the palisade. The guards took Nineve and her escort across the courtyard towards the largest of the buildings. There they were told to wait.
Only a few minutes passed before they were ushered in. As his eyes adjusted to the dim interior of the hall, Herringdale was startled to see about a dozen Salisbury knights, Sir Leo among them, smiling back at him. Leo strode forward and took Herringdale in a great bear hug.
"My lord!" he exclaimed as he released Herringdale. "I knew we would not be separated from you long!"
Herringdale was at a loss for words. "How did you find your way here?" he spluttered.
"They've been filtering in in ones and twos," said a balding, red-haired man.
Sir Leo took Herringdale over to the man as he rose from his modest throne.
"Marshall Herringdale, may I present King Cadwy of Somerset," said Sir Leo.
"Your majesty," said Herringdale, bowing low.
Cadwy acknowledged Herringdale with a congenial slap on the back, then bowed in turn to Lady Nineve.
The king, the lady, and the Marshall had a seat at a rough-hewn table, where they were presented with a modest feast. Herringdale was filled in on the details of what had occurred since the attack of Gardeth's corpse-knights by Sir Leo. It had been a total rout, and the Salisbury company had scattered in all directions. Many, like Herringdale, had fled on foot, but some had managed to grab hold of some horses before running. Sir Leo had barely escaped with his life, but had managed to take his own charger as well as Sir Herringdale's (I rolled an impromptu Horse Survival roll with a -10 modifier, and Smuggy III still managed to make it!). Leo, along with the other knights present, had managed to find their way to Cadwy's camp through a combination of friendly locals and blind luck.
"It's been nearly a week since we were attacked, and before your arrival it had been three days since any Salisbury knight had come to this fort," said Leo.
"Sir Leo has told me of your mission," Cadwy said, "and my army is ready to march to Bath to aid Nanteleod."
Herringdale was much gladdened by this news, but was concerned that only about a fifth of his company had so far shown up.
"Let us wait a few more days and see if any more of our company makes their way here," he said to Leo. The king agreed to this, and so they waited.
The next morning, Lady Nineve and her maidens made ready to depart back to Glastonbury. King Cadwy assigned five of his best men to escort them. Herringdale met Nineve in the yard of the palisade to thank her, but she had some unexpected news for him.
"Sir knight," she said, her eyes boring into Herringdale as she stood beside a horse Cadwy had provided her, "last night I had a most remarkable dream. I dreamt of you."
Herringdale was caught quite off-guard by this, but bade her continue.
"In my dream, I saw you being led through the darkened woods by three guides, each in turn. One met you and led you into the woods at twilight, the other came and led you through midnight, and the third led you out of the woods at dawn. The first guide, I divined, loved you deeply, the second deceived you and nearly led you off the path, and the third was there to show you the True Way."
With that, Nineve mounted her horse.
"Farewell, Sir Herringdale. Mark that you know which guide is which."
Herringdale was left to ponder the meaning of Nineve's vision as he waited for other knights to show up. Two days passed, and Sir Jaradan showed up, bedraggled and caked in mud and blood, telling tales of barely escaping from great clawed marsh toads. Another three days passed with only one knight showing. Finally, Herringdale gave to the okay to Cadwy to marshal his troops for the march north.
Reunited with Smuggy III, Herringdale rode a borrowed rouncey along the trails leading north out of the marshes. Cadwy's army made its way towards Wells and as they rode the local populace greeted them at every manor and village with cheers and salutations. More men-at-arms emerged from their hiding places and swelled the army's ranks, and hordes of armed peasant men fell into line of march behind the knights.
As they approached Wells, the tolling of bells within the city told them that their approach had been noted. Herringdale steeled himself for battle, but it was not to be. As they drew closer to the city gates, the banner of King Idres came tumbling down in a great heap. At almost the same time, Herringdale spotted two men, presumably the Cornish lords appointed to rule Wells by Idres, were sent flying from the city's highest tower. The population of Wells threw the gates open and welcomed Cadwy and Herringdale with an almost delirious joy.
After pausing to overnight in the city, where Herringdale's greatest challenge was to resist the great quantities of food and drink being foisted upon him so as to stay in a condition fit to march, the army continued north along the old royal road towards Bath, still two days' march away. It was around midday of the second day that Herringdale finally spotted Bath. The ancient Roman city had obviously been more strongly garrisoned than Wells and had not given itself up at the approach of Nanteleod's army, which even now was spread around three sides of the stout walls, its siege machines periodically lobbing missiles over the walls.
Cadwy and Nanteleod met and embraced in the middle of the latter's camp.
"With the forces of Somerset by my side, King Idres would be foolhardy indeed to attempt to raise this siege," Nanteleod boasted. Cadwy gave Nanteleod a broad smile, then toasted his health, draining a large goblet in one swift gulp.
Herringdale elected to stay on with Nanteleod, supervising the progress of the siege of Bath. He sent Sir Leo back to Salisbury to see if any other knights had returned home and granted release to any other vassals who wanted to return home as well. Sir Jaradan stayed on, but most followed Sir Leo back to Salisbury, thankful to be alive.
A month went by. Sir Leo returned with reports that another dozen Salisbury knights had filtered back to the county after being dispersed by the corpse-knights. About half of Salisbury's company, then, had been killed or lost in the aftermath of that disastrous encounter. On the upside, the siege of Bath was proceeding apace, and King Idres had obviously acted precisely as Nanteleod had anticipated, keeping his army well away.
As summer turned towards autumn, Nanteleod mused about his plans for the following year with Herringdale.
"Bath should fall any day now," he said. "I will establish my winter quarters here and send word for my vassals to muster their forces come the thaw. I am sure Idres is doing the same. I will complete the liberation of Somerset next year and, if all goes well, bring that Cornish bastard to bay in the process!"
Herringdale nodded his approval.
"If it's all the same to you, my lord," he said, "I shall winter over here at Bath as well. Salisbury is secure in my absence, and there is little left for me at home."
"As you wish, Marshall," said Nanteleod, giving him a friendly pat on the shoulder. And so Herringdale settled in for the remainder of the siege. As the first snows of winter fell, so too did the city of Bath. King Idres was still nowhere to be seen, but Herringdale knew a confrontation was coming. As he gazed out over the snow-covered town from his commandeered residence near the city's famous namesake, he mused that he would like very much to meet Prince Mark in battle and repay him for the slander that had caused so much recent trouble. Yes, he would like that very much indeed...