Friday, August 13, 2010

[Solo GPC] 507: Daggers at Broughton

Although the Great Pendragon Campaign and the many Pendragon adventure collections available in PDF form provide reams and reams of material - more than one could ever hope to squeeze into even two or three campaign arcs - I've found in my experience of running the game that the best sessions inevitably arise from the home-crafted scenarios, the ones that play off of character history and development. This year's session was one such as that.



In the GPC, the year 507 is one of those relatively wide-open affairs. A few national events are described in a paragraph each, but nothing earth-shaking or revelatory occurs. The event that mostly caught my eye was the Saxon raids that would be striking Salisbury barring any interference from the PCs. As Herringdale was off with Nanteleod in Somerset, the raids were sure to happen in our own campaign. I sensed an opportunity to bring a little personal story arc to a possible conclusion.

Over the course of the week leading up to the session I prepared a detailed map of Broughton manor, the Hall itself, as well as notes on the other manorial holdings of Du Plain. I made some notes on friendly and enemy NPCs and, essentially, made ready to turn Des loose on the setting, a sort of Pendragon-style mini-sandbox.

For the map of Broughton I found a great resource in the form of a manor written up for the Harn RPG setting. There was very little I needed to change to represent Broughton; the manor itself was walled and surrounded by a moat, there were orchards, there was even a guest house! Perfect. And that Harn-style cartography is just so darn purdy, and pretty darn inspiring to boot.

So prepared, and after an uneventful Winter Session, we faded in on Herringdale traveling through the Roman streets of the city of Bath. It was early April and the winter snows had long since melted. The hustle and bustle of an army rousing itself for war reverberated through the stone streets and neatly-spaced townhouses. The army, consisting of contingents from Escavalon, Gloucester, Clarence, and Wuerensis under King Nanteleod allied with King Cadwy's Somerset knights, had wintered over in the old city and plans were now under way to go on the march again; King Idres of Cornwall had refused to be drawn into open battle the previous year, and Nanteleod was determined to pin the wily and elusive Cornishman down this year or else drive him from Somerset.

At this point we got into a discussion of how Herringdale had spent his winter. After giving in to temptation a couple years ago and breaking his promise to Archbishop Dubricus, the question arose: what would Herringdale do during the course of a long, cold winter surrounded by strapping knights and soldiers, hanging out in steamy baths and natural hot springs? Des decided to let the dice decide. Herringdale's Lustful is normally 10, but he has a directed trait when it comes to men that raises it to 15. I'm sure we were both fairly certain of what would happen, but Des proceeded to roll the first of several natural 20s that evening. Fumble! Turns out, when you fumble a trait roll in Pendragon you automatically are obliged to act in accordance with the opposite trait, in this case Chaste. What was going on with Herringdale, then? After a bit more discussion, Des decided that clearly he was dealing with some lingering feelings of guilt regarding his broken promise and sinful behavior, not to mention some still unresolved feelings of culpability in the estrangement of his marriage. Rather than a winter of debauchery and hedonism, then, Herringdale spent much of his time in thoughtful solitude or else attending mass at the city's cathedral.

With the coming of spring, Herringdale was looking forward to getting back out on campaign. He still bore a grudge against Cornwall's Prince Mark, one he hoped to repay on the battlefield, and the martial life was the perfect distraction from the sort of maudlin thoughts that had troubled him during the cold months. He was no longer leading a company but rather an eschille, or banner, of knights. After the disastrous trip into the marshes of the year before, most of Salisbury's surviving knights had returned home with Herringdale's permission. Remaining in Bath with Herringdale were a mere 10 knights, but among them was his ablest vassal, Sir Jaradan. As we started things properly, Herringdale had sent Jaradan to oversee preparations to join the march to war as he had just been summoned to Nanteleod's villa in the center of town.

Arriving at the king's court, Herringdale immediately spotted a young squire that he recognized from Countess Ellen's court. He was deep in conversation with Nanteleod, and as soon as Herringdale approached, the squire hurried over to him.

"I have come bearing urgent news from the Countess!" the squire said breathlessly. He bore the unmistakable signs of one who has ridden far in a very short span of time. Herringdale bade him continue. "Two weeks ago, after we rejected another demand for tribute from King Cerdic, several large bands of Saxon raiders crossed into Salisbury from Wessex. They have been bypassing strongpoints like Du Plain Castle, but have been sacking and pillaging manors across the east country. They have yet to assail Sarum, but they are doing terrible damage to the land and throwing the people into a panic!"

Herringdale glanced at Nanteleod as he walked over, his face grim.

"My army will be ready to march in less than a week," Nanteleod said. "The question now is: do we march west or east?"

Herringdale took the meaning immediately. Could he, with his Salisbury forces alone, turn back the Saxon raiders, or would Nanteleod have to back his play? Herringdale went over the numbers in his head. The Somerset expedition the year before had cost the lives of 15 of Salisbury's 50 knights. Herringdale had 10 knights with him, leaving 25 back at home. When Ellen's squire had left Vagon Castle two days ago, the Saxons had not penetrated beyond Sarum.

"My liege," Herringdale said, "give me leave to take my banner back to Salisbury and I feel that we can turn these rascals back."

Nanteleod nodded. "You and your stout knights will be missed during our campaign this year, but you must tend to your home and my wife's safety above all else. If the situation turns more dire than we at first supposed, do not hesitate to send for me."

Despite the king's kind words, Herringdale could tell Nanteleod was pleased that he was going to be able to go ahead with his Somerset campaign as planned.

With only ten knights to muster, Herringdale was ready to depart the next morning. He led his banner, riding hard along the southeast road through Blakemore Wood, reaching Warminster at dusk. Before dawn the next morning they set out again, picking up the old Roman road through the Selwood and arriving at Vagon Castle by mid-afternoon. There Herringdale found is old friend Sir Leo in the bailey. They talked as they began ascending the steep stairs up the side of the artificial motte that led to the castle's stone keep.

"The main brunt of the Saxon raids seems to have spent itself," Leo said. "Unfortunately, there are now roving bands of raiders all about the east country. They've mainly concentrated on the manors around Du Plain, Upperchute, and Ebble," he said ruefully - Ebble was Leo's primary holding.

"What do you mean by 'concentrated'?" Herringdale asked as they entered the castle's keep, striding past the guardsmen who bowed them in.

"We have reports that although most manor holdings have been thoroughly pillaged, many have been taken over by particularly determined bands of raiders, who have fortified them against counter-attack."

At this point the duo entered the keep's modest hall, which was crammed with courtiers, pages, squires, and knights. Countess Ellen, smiling broadly, rose to greet Herringdale as he approached.

"Marshall, you are indeed a welcome sight!" she said. "I trust Sir Leo has apprised you of the latest developments?"

"He has indeed," said Herringdale. "What is the latest word from my own holdings?"

"The last report we had, about a week ago now, was that Du Plain Castle was holding strong and had not suffered direct attack. As for your other holdings, we've had no word."

"Very well," said Herringdale, trying not to think of the danger facing his kinsfolk - including his eldest daughter, Heledd, who was recently returned from serving at the court of King Leodegrance of Cameliard. "We should act quickly and decisively. How many do I have at my disposal?"

Working with Sir Leo and Sir Jaradan, Herringdale determined that besides the three of them there were 12 knights who were at Vagon Castle and ready to march. So be it. With the banner Herringdale had brought from Somerset, that left a sizable force of two dozen knights. But would it be enough to oust the malingering Saxons from the county? The order was put forth to make ready to march east at first light the next morning.

By the end of the next day's march, the party of knights had reached Sarum. With Countess Ellen and her court still back at Vagon, the city seemed a bit quieter than usual. Overnighting at the castle, Herringdale met with Leo, Jaradan, and Sir Eudaf, lord of Upperchute. They discussed the strategy for how to take on the Saxon threat. Herringdale advanced the strategy that they might be best served by splitting up at this point.

"Sir Leo and Sir Eudaf and I can each take a contingent of knights and march to our respective holdings. If the raids truly have spent their fury, we may yet encounter but little resistance. If the resistance is too much, however, retreat back to Sarum and send word to the others and we shall come to each others' assistance as needed."

The other knights agreed to this strategy. Sir Jaradan volunteered to ride with Herringdale, as Du Plain was likely to have suffered the brunt of the raiders' fury and may yet harbor the largest remaining concentration of laggards.

Pausing only one evening to rest, the knights went their separate way the next morning. Sir Leo rode south with a complement of six knights, bound for Ebble. Sir Eudaf took the northeast road towards Upperchute with a half-dozen knights of his own. Herringdale and Jaradan and their six knights rode due east along the Wessex road, bound for Du Plain.

By mid-morning they had crossed the Bourne River and were beginning to see evidence of pillaging. Around the manor of Ford, some fields had been put to the torch. Mid-afternoon took them past the manor of Pitton, which had suffered grievously at the raiders' hands; fields were torched, as was the village and manor house. Any survivors had scattered to the winds and had not yet returned. But there was no sign of any recent raiding activity.

Two hours later, the party passed into Herringdale's holdings. A track leading north from the Roman road and over a rise would, Herringdale knew, take him to the manor of Buckholt, about a mile from the main road. The manor was well maintained by Herringdale's bastard older half-brother, Sir Maurel, and now Herringdale paused at the crossroads. He was anxious to press on; he knew that there was no time for even a slight detour and that only by riding straight on could he hope to reach either Broughton Hall or Du Plain Castle by dark. But he was also concerned for the welfare of his brother and Buckholt manor. What to do?

Looking around, Herringdale noted the peaceful countryside. There was not sign of pillaging or raiding here. A flock of sheep grazed peacefully among the flatland south of the road. Everything seemed so calm...

Making up his mind, Herringdale flicked the reins of his rouncey and led his men along the east road, continuing on towards Du Plain.

[This was another of Des's fumbles of the evening. Despite Herringdale's Awareness of 18, Des rolled a natural 20. I had called for an Awareness roll (which can account for a "sixth sense" as well as the five basic senses) to sense something "wrong" - that it was a little too quiet, that the sheep were grazing in the wastes rather than a proper pasture and there was nary a shepherd or sheepdog in sight. As Herringdale would learn much later, Buckholt manor was in fact under siege by a large force of Saxons even at that very moment. But a fumble represents a fundamental cock-up, and so Herringdale made a fateful decision to ride on, fooling himself into believing everything was okay in his own holdings.]

As the sun began to dip low towards the horizon, Herringdale's party reached a familiar Y-junction. The right hand road, which was paved and well-traveled, would lead onwards to Du Plain Castle after about a half-hour's ride. The left hand path, an unpaved and less traveled thoroughfare, would curve away to the north, taking the rider eventually to Broughton Hall after about an hour's ride. Again Herringdale paused. He was reasonably sure that Du Plain Castle held firm and fast, unmolested. But what of his ancestral home? Despite the gathering dusk, he had to ride north. He had to see if Broughton Hall still stood.

After nearly an hour of riding, Herringdale finally caught sight of Broughton, silhouetted in the growing gloom on a low rise. From what he could tell, squinting through the twilight, the building was still intact! Excitedly, he urged his men forward and they proceeded along at a trot, entering the South Orchard that marked the boundary of Broughton manor proper. About halfway through the orchard, however, Herringdale heard a growling, guttural voice calling out to him from among the cherry trees that flanked the path.

"That's far enough, pigs!"

It was unmistakably a Saxon voice. Glancing left and right, Herringdale could see at least a dozen raiders, bows at the ready, arrows drawn to cheeks. He quickly signaled a halt.

"One more step and you fall where you stand!" the Saxon barked. Emerging cautiously, the Saxon bandits surrounded Herringdale's party. Some kept their bows drawn and ready, others were wielding long spears which they thrust menacingly at the knights. Shouldering their weapons, a few bandits came forward and grabbed the reins of the knights' and squires' mounts.

"Down off the horses!" the bandit leader commanded.

Reluctantly, Herringdale dismounted. His sword and mace were taken from him as the other men in his party were similarly disarmed. Herringdale was relieved that he had apparently gone unrecognized, at least by this group. The Saxons were treating all the knights with equal rough disdain, but they were showing no signs that they might have realized they'd just captured the lord of the very manor they'd taken over.

Herringdale and his men were marched along the road north out of the orchard and towards Broughton Hall. In the quickly falling dusk, Herringdale could see lights ablaze in the second-floor windows that peaked over the wooden palisade, and smoke gently curling out of a hole in the center of the great slate roof that covered the manor house's great hall.

After passing over the moat that surrounded the palisade and entering the courtyard, it was to the great hall that Herringdale was taken. Looking around along the way, he was pleased (if not a little surprised) to see everything quite intact. Except for the fact that the grounds were now swarming with Saxons, Broughton Hall seemed to be just as he had left it over a year ago.

As Herringdale was led into the great hall, the bandit leader made the happy announcement: "Lord Hrothbert, I bring captives!"


There was a small group of Saxons gathered around the hall's central fire-pit, which was flanked on three sides by long tables, admiring a roasting boar turning on an iron spit over the low flames. Upon hearing his name, a Saxon with his back to the door turned, limping slightly as he did so. Herringdale's heart lept: it was the bandit cur who had made off with Lady Elaine that fateful night when she had poisoned him! So that must mean...

Herringdale's eyes darted to the other members of the group. Most surprisingly, he spotted the manor's chaplain, Father Rhys, who appeared to be quite drunk. There was also a mountain of a Saxon who looked like he truly had some giant blood in his lineage, a Saxon minstrel holding a harp couched on his hip, and there, stepping out from behind the large Saxon, was Herringdale's wife, Lady Elaine.

Although dressed in her usual fine fabrics, she looked like she'd been living rough the past three years. Her skin was bronzed like a peasant's, her freckles dark and splotchy across her face. Her auburn hair had been lightened, bleached by the sun. Her hands, once fair and delicate, were now rougher, the wrinkles about her eyes much more noticeable. She gave Herringdale a cold smile. "Welcome home," she said.

The hall rang with the Saxons' sardonic laughter. Hrothbert, the bandit leader, limped forward, sneering at Herringdale.

"Well, well," he said. "Little did I dream that you would come so willingly back into my hands. We meet again for the third time. Twice now you have tried to kill me and failed. This time, I think, it shall be you that comes out the worse for it."

He turned to address the other Saxons assembled in the hall.

"But let it not be said that we are not a just and noble people! Unlike this brute who stands here before me, I shall show my mercy and justice by giving a fair trial!"

He turned back to address Herringdale.

"You stand accused of attempted murder, mischief, theft, and cruelty. Your trial shall be on the morrow. If you are found to be guilty, you shall be put to death. If you are innocent, you will be allowed to go free with your men, though we shall keep your armor, weapons, and horses."

As Herringdale stared at Elaine, his face a blank mask but his legendary gaze boring into her, he was stripped of his armor, stripped down to his chemise. There was much he longed to say to her. He wanted to wound her as she had wounded him. Did she know that two of her children had died after she left? That little Lilo had wasted away from grief over her mother's disappearance? He tried to communicate all this in his gaze. Perhaps something got through, as Elaine quickly turned away to stare into the fire once more.

Herringdale's knights and squires were similarly stripped down, then led out of the great hall to be boarded in the nearby guest quarters. Herringdale, meanwhile, was taken to the stone tower keep that stood adjacent to the hall. Taken up through the second-floor entrance, he was pushed roughly through a trapdoor into the donjon below, plunged into all-consuming darkness when the trapdoor was slammed shut.

Herringdale sat in the dark going over everything that had just happened. Apart from Father Rhys, he hadn't seen any of the old manorial staff. Perhaps they were all dead. Or maybe they had fled at the Saxon approach? No matter. It looked like there was little Herringdale could hope for at this point; he was going to have to face Saxon justice, whatever that entailed. He slipped into an uneasy slumber.

The next morning he was awoken when the trapdoor was flung wide and a rope dropped into the donjon. After climbing up it, he was escorted by a half-dozen Saxon guards back to the great hall. There he found Hrothbert, dressed in a simple homespun green wool tunic, and Lady Elaine, as well as Hrothbert's mountainous bodyguard and about two dozen other Saxon warriors. Father Rhys was passed out, snoring loudly under one of the tables. Herringdale noted with some trepidation that a small iron pot sat over the fire-pit, filled halfway with boiling water.

A few minutes later, Herringdale's companions were marched into the hall by spearpoint. Herringdale could only hope that if he didn't survive the day that at least young Robert, heir to the Earldom of Salisbury, would continue to go unrecognized and be allowed to go free.

"In the light of the charges against you," Hrothbert began, "it has been decided by this court that you will be required to undergo a trial by ordeal. In yonder cauldron lies a rock. You are to reach into the water and pluck the rock out, then lay it on the ground. If you hesitate at the point of action, or you cannot hold the rock long enough to set it down, then you shall be judged guilty.

"If you lay the rock down, your burns will be bandaged and you will be sent back to your quarters for a period of three days. On the afternoon of the third day your bandages will be removed. If you are innocent, your burns will have healed. If you are guilty, your wounds will have festered, and you will be put to death on the spot. Any questions?"

Herringdale said nothing. He simply stepped up to the cauldron and, again fixing Elaine with a piercing stare, plunged his hand into the boiling water. At this point Des made a Valorous roll for Herringdale, passing it easily. She then made a Constitution roll, but not before invoking her Hate (Saxons) passion. She made the passion roll, giving her an effective Constitution of 30. Not surprisingly, she critted her Constitution roll. I ruled that a crit on that roll was good enough for half damage, so Herringdale took only 2 points of damage from picking the rock out of the water.

(I got the rules for trials by ordeal from the old Saxons supplement. Some good stuff in that one!)

The rock, which was about the size of an eggplant, sizzled in Herringdale's hand, but he held it up for several seconds to make sure all could see that he had a firm grip on it. He then made to set it on the floor, but at the last second chucked it at Hrothbert! With a successful Dexterity roll, the rock struck Hrothbert on the chest, knocking the wind out of him and singeing his tunic.

Hrothbert's bodyguard moved forward as his lord stumbled backwards, the hot rock clattering to the tiled floor, but Hrothbert waved him off.

"I'm fine!" he roared. "Take him away!"

Herringdale was roughly escorted from the hall. As he left, he caught sight of Jaradan and his squires, Robert and Baldrick. All were giving him encouraging smiles, a far cry from the glum expressions they had worn as they'd been escorted into the hall ten minutes earlier.

Back in the dark donjon, Herringdale nursed his wounded hand. It had been wrapped roughly in bandages but had not been treated with any healing poultices or other preparations; it was to heal on its own, and in only three days. And so Herringdale sat, his blood still boiling with his hatred of Saxons. The hate made him strong and fueled his recovery.

Once a day, his guards threw down a stale loaf of bread and a skin of Broughton's famous mead. Herringdale would drink half the mead, then rub the remainder over his wounded hand, the fermented honey aiding in the healing. (This was Des's idea. I have no clue if that would work in real life, but it sounded reasonable and genre-appropriate; I allowed a +5 to Herringdale's daily Constitution roll in addition to his daily Hate passion bonus.)

According to the rules for Trial by Ordeal in Saxons, Herringdale had to make three Constitution rolls, one per day, to attempt to heal the damage inflicted by the boiling water. The better the roll, the faster the healing. As he had a total bonus of +15 to the roll, and his CON was 20 to begin with, by day two the wounds on his hand were completely healed.

And so the afternoon of the third day arrived. Herringdale was hoisted from his cell and brought to the great hall yet again, and once more his men, still dressed in nothing but their chemises like Herringdale, were marched in as well. Once again Hrothbert was there, still dressed in homespun wool of green and brown, and his men stood alongside him, as did Lady Elaine, wearing a fine dress of crushed red velvet. To Herringdale's great outrage, the Saxon was seated in his own throne! Elaine occupied her old seat to Hrothbert's left.

"Bring the prisoner forward!" Hrothbert ordered. Herringdale was marched roughly to the center of the hall, between the fire pit and the high table, by the half-giant Saxon. Two bandits stepped forward and grabbed Herringdale's injured arm, then began unwrapping the bandages. As the last of the wrapping fell away, they stepped back with a gasp. The hand, rather than blistered and festering, was merely a delicate shade of pink with not a trace of burn or injury upon it.

Hrotherbert jumped up from his seat so quickly he sent the throne toppling backwards. Elaine gave a cry of alarm, and the mountainous Saxon at Herringdale's side swore an oath to Wotan. At the back of the hall, though they did not have a clear view, Herringdale's men quickly realized what must have happened. Sir Jaradan raised a cry of delight: "Three cheers for Marshall Herringdale!"

He was quickly silenced as a nearby Saxon brought the butt of a hand-axe down on his temple. In the brief moment of distraction caused by this outburst, Herringdale seized his opportunity. His troll-like guard had a Saxon dagger, a glorified butcher knife known as a seax, tucked in his belt. With a successful opposed Dexterity check, Herringdale was able to snatch the seax from its tooled leather scabbard. His follow-up swipe at its former owner went wide, but was enough to send the guard backpedaling away. Several other guards moved forward, spears leveled, but Herringdale turned to face Hrothbert instead.

Leveling his dagger at the bandit leader, Herringdale fixed Hrothbert with a penetrating gaze.

"So you can see, cur, that I am well and truly innocent. God has seen to my salvation, and now I demand you leave my hall for good!"

Hrotherbert, with a quick glance at the guards coming up slowly behind Herringdale, merely smirked.

"I think not, lord. You now stand with a weapon drawn against me. Whatever past crimes you may have been absolved of, you are clearly guilty of treason and contempt. Seize him!"

With few options remaining, Herringdale threw caution to the wind. (At this point we actually referenced Herringdale's Movement Rating, which may be a first for us in Pendragon; honestly, that stat gets less action than Appearance. Without armor on, Herringdale could move six yards in one combat round. Hrothbert was standing five yards away...) Herringdale launched himself forward as the Saxon guards closed in behind him. He went airborne, vaulting over the high table and taking Hrothbert in a flying tackle. The force of his tackle sent both men hurtling through the window behind the table, out into the courtyard. They rolled to their feet, facing each other about a yard apart.

Hrothbert drew his own seax and brandished it at Herringdale.

"I see you choose trial by combat to settle the accusation of treason. So be it!"

As Saxons and knights alike filed out into the courtyard and formed a circle, the two men began pacing like lions closing for the kill, each brandishing a naked seax in his right hand. Hrothbert was the first to strike, lashing out with a flash of cold steel. Blood blossomed across Herringdale's exposed thigh as he stumbled back. A quick glance told him the wound was not serious, fortunately.

After circling each other for nearly a minute, looking for an opening, Hrothbert again lunged forth and again Herringdale fell back, this time clutching a bloody cut across his chest. The watching Saxons gave a resounding cheer. Hrothbert pressed his advantage and, his eyes bulging madly, came at Herringdale yet again. Herringdale barely got his dagger up for a parry, but the weapon was not designed for that; with a ringing "clang!" it went flying from his grip. (Yet another fumble from Des! I ruled that daggers, like swords, are dropped rather than broken on a fumbled roll.)

Herringdale dove for the seax as Hrothbert rained blows upon him. He felt the blade sink into his back and slide along a rib, but, fueled by his Hatred, he felt no pain. His hand closed around the hilt of his dropped weapon and he spun around, bringing the blade forward and up in a sort of uppercut motion. As Hrothbert was right on top of him, there was nowhere for the Saxon bandit to go. Herringdale felt the blade of his seax sink into Hrothbert's torso just under his sternum, felt gouts of hot blood pour over his hand and arm. With a pathetic gurgle, Hrothbert dropped to the ground.

As the Saxon guards stood stunned by what they'd just witnessed, weapons slack in their grips, Jaradan and his knights made their move. In less than a minute it was over; one knight lay dead on the ground, but so too did three Saxons. Moreover, the knights and squires now held the Saxon weapons, and the bandits were quickly upon their knees, begging for mercy.

As soon as Jaradan and his men had seized the Saxons' weapons, Herringdale began looking around for Elaine. She had not come out into the courtyard with everyone else. Somewhat stiffly, bleeding from multiple wounds, Herringdale walked back into the great hall, throwing down the seax as he went. Elaine was still in the hall. She stood with her back to the door, facing the fire pit, her head bowed.

Herringdale moved forward. She did not seem to notice his approach until he was right behind her. She turned, her head still bowed, her auburn hair cascading over her face. Herringdale gently touched her chin and raised her face to his. Silent tears were streaming down her gray, pallid face. Suddenly there came a clanging sound at her feet. Looking down, Herringdale saw a small, bloody dagger of British make had just fallen to the floor. His eyes traced up Elaine's velvet dress. It was hard to make out against the red fabric, but there, just below her bosom, was an even darker patch of red quickly spreading.

"No!" Herringdale whispered. Elaine met his eyes. She seemed like she wanted to say something, but only a small trickle of blood came out. Her knees buckled and Herringdale caught her by the elbows, then gently lowered her to the floor. She died as he held her. All the bile and hatred Herringdale had felt toward his wife melted away. Lying peacefully there before him, she looked almost pitiable...

"My lord?" It was Jaradan. He had come up alongside Herringdale and now rested a hand on his shoulder.

"Where to now, Sir Jaradan?" Herringdale asked, his voice flat.

"For you, my lord, to bed," said Jaradan. "I shall take the men and ride for Du Plain Castle. We'll take these cur bandits along and hand them over to the Sheriff for proper justice. Then I will return to you with a full report."

"Very well," said Herringdale. "Leave my squires and go with the others."

As Jaradan left, Herringdale spotted the slumbering form of Father Rhys, propped up in the adjoining kitchen against the great stone oven, snoring quietly. Herringdale strode across the hall and into the kitchen. He grabbed a pail of water and splashed it on Rhys's face; the priest woke up spluttering.

"On your feet, dog!" Herringdale snarled. "You have a funeral to oversee."

Over the course of the afternoon, Robert and Baldrick dug a grave in the yard of the manor's chapel as Herringdale and Rhys watched and talked. Merciful as always, Herringdale was willing to hear Rhys's side of the story once he'd calmed down a bit.

"Forgive me my lord, but I had no choice!" Rhys protested. "My gout prevented me from making a break for it like the others. The only way I could stay alive was to become a fool for the Saxons' amusement. They enjoyed seeing a Christian holy man such as myself reduced to such a state of wretched drunken misery."

"So you say the others escaped?" Herringdale asked.

"Indeed, sir. The manor was taken by trickery three days after we'd received word of large raiding parties in the area. Lady Elaine appeared at our gate at dusk that night, claiming that she'd been kidnapped all those years ago and had only just effected an escape in the chaos of the raids. We...well, you never told us exactly what happened the night she disappeared. She wasn't dressed as you saw her now, but rather in torn and tattered rags. We...took pity on her and let her in."

"I would have done the same, Father," Herringdale said reassuringly. "Pray continue."

"Well, she must have snuck back out to the gate around midnight and lowered it, letting Hrothbert and his men in. They took the manor without a fight. But two days later, Captain Pedrag and his guards, who had been clapped in chains, managed to get free of their bonds somehow and fought their way out, along with Jamis the Falconer. One of the guards was killed, but the rest escaped, to where I know not. Over the next fortnight, the other members of staff found their opportunities to slip away in ones and twos. By the time you arrived, I was the only one left."

At this point, Robert and Baldrick had finished digging the grave. Elaine's body, wrapped in an erstaz shroud, lay beside it, as did Hrothbert's. "Let them be together in death as they were in life," said Herringdale. As Father Rhys performed the funerary rites, the two bodies were tipped in and the two squires began refilling the grave.

After the funeral, Herringdale dragged his way up to his chambers. Noting that it had lain undisturbed during the Saxon occupation, he pulled the dustcover off his bed and sat wearily upon his mattress. Across from him was the repaired mosaic of Sir Jordans, the one love of his life. The sun had nearly set by now, and his room was bathed in a reddish-orange light from the west-facing window. The fading sunlight glinted off the shiny tiles in the mosaic as Herringdale sat, lost in thought, until finally the room was as dark as the donjon.

***

Two weeks passed with no word from Sir Jaradan or Du Plain Castle. Herringdale had been confined to bed, allowing his wounds to heal (he was down to four points above Unconsciousness after the knife fight!) but worrying about his vassals. He was just contemplating sending one of his squires to Du Plain when Sir Jaradan finally showed up, and what was more, he had Herringdale's bastard half-brother Sir Maurel with him!

Maurel recounted the tale of the Siege of Buckholt as the bulk of the Saxon raiding force, forbidden from pillaging Broughton by Hrothbert and Elaine, had fallen upon that manor with the full brunt of their fury. Maurel had barely managed to hold them off, and he was bolstered a few days later with the arrival of the Broughton garrison after it had made its escape from the manor. Although only five men strong, it more than doubled Buckholt's defenders and enabled them to mount an effective resistance to repeated Saxon assaults. Nevertheless, things were looking increasingly grim by the time Sir Jaradan and his knights showed up, dispatched by the Sheriff of Du Plain Castle to their rescue.

"What of my other manors?" Herringdale inquired. "My daughter Heledd is at Nether Wallop - do you know how she fares?"

"I do not, my lord," said Sir Jaradan with a conciliatory bow.

(This led to the one-liner of the evening when Des mused, "Oh dear, there's no telling if her nethers have been walloped then...")

As Nether Wallop lay about five miles up a country lane that ran north from Broughton, Herringdale elected to go see for himself; his wounds were healed enough that he could chance a ride into possibly hostile territory. He took only his squires with him - if he ran into more Saxons, his plan was to turn and ride back to Broughton or die in the attempt. He would never allow himself to be captured again!

Fortunately, the ride was peaceful and untroubled. Arriving at Nether Wallop, he was greeted by his aging uncle, Sir Loren, and by young Lady Heledd. She related over freshly-brewed mugs of ale that until about a week ago the manor had been under guard by about a half-dozen Saxons, but they had not pillaged or plundered the manor house or the village on Elaine's command.

"Then one day they just up and left. Some Saxons had come out of the woods to the southwest, then our guards packed up and left with them, heading southeast. One of the guards told me it was only on Mother's orders that I had been spared their attentions," she said with a shudder.

"Yes, about your mother..." Herringdale said. He then told Heledd the whole story of what had happened, sparing no details. By the time he was done she was in tears, but she quickly collected herself, tended to by young Squire Robert.

"There there, don't cry," said the boy as he handed her a kerchief.

Herringdale made ready to return to Broughton, but he told Robert to stay behind and look after Heledd. Sir Loren was getting into his 60th decade and was beginning to show signs of senility, after all...

***

Herringdale returned to Broughton where he rested some more until his wounds were completely healed. He then decamped to Du Plain Castle, where two weeks later he was visited by Countess Ellen and her court. She presented Herringdale with goods and coin worth £3 and congratulated him on routing the last of the Saxon raiders.

"I've had happy news from our lord, King Nanteleod. Somerset is free! King Idres has returned to Cornwall without giving open battle. Nanteleod will winter over at Wells then come back to Sarum next spring."

"Happy news indeed!" Herringdale exclaimed.

That night, during the celebratory feast, Herringdale's jongleur troupe brought still more good news: Duke Corneus of Lindsey had organized an army and marched on London, determined to free it. At his forces' approach, the citizens of London had risen up and cast their Saxon occupiers out. London was again a free city!

With the Saxons and Corishmen on their back feet Herringdale began making plans for the following year as winter began to set in. Seeing his daughter Heledd had gotten him thinking about his other surviving daughter, Meleri, who had been serving as handmaiden to Queen Morgan of Gorre. Perhaps it was time for another trip up north to visit her and see how she was doing. She should be told about her mother in person, at the least...

***

So a few last thoughts from the GMing perspective, then. As I mentioned at the outset, I pictured this year as being a sort of "mini-sandbox." The idea of Saxon raiders descending like lightning and occupying strategic strongpoints was inspired by the Tet Offensive and the subsequent mopping-up operations in Saigon, Hue, and other areas.

Thanks to a combination of dice rolls and player choice, Herringdale ended up walking right into the lion's den, but it led to some of our most epic moments so far. The knife fight was quite dramatic, as is any combat in Pendragon that happens out of armor. Thank goodness daggers do -1d6 damage or Herringdale probably would have bought the farm before he managed to score that crit against Hrothbert. With the fumble and the last-minute comeback, the combat really played out like an epic Hollywood fight.

As for Elaine, well, she went out in a blaze of glory, eh? I wasn't sure up to the last minute how she'd react to Hrothbert's death. I actually got some insight into her character (and her relationship to Herringdale) from watching the latest (U.S.) season of Big Brother these past couple weeks (hey, us GMs gotta get our inspiration from anywhere we can find it, right?), coming in the form of Rachel, the unstable and slightly psychotic redhead, and her "showmantic" partner Brendon.

Based on these revelations and Elaine's past, plus some key dice rolls a few years back, she began to emerge as dangerously needy and unstable. Her assault at the hands of Hrothbert unhinged her for good, and in the end I realized that to her seemingly the only way out would be death.

Des, for her part, was ready to forgive Elaine. Of course, I would have required a roll of Herringdale's Hate (Elaine) versus his Merciful, but he's known for his Mercy after all, so the odds were probably pretty good that he would have spared her. Now we'll never know, unfortunately.
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