Tuesday, August 24, 2010

[Solo GPC] 509: Of Countesses and Earls...

[Partly by design, partly by accident, this turned to be a real action-packed year. It actually spanned two full sessions, so be warned that it's even lengthier than usual...]

This year witnessed Sir Herringdale come into his own as a political mover and shaker in Salisbury and beyond. Some of his attempts at power brokerage met with wild success; others proved much more vexing... The year started off, however, with strange portents of things to come.

We picked up the action right where we'd left off the previous year, with Du Plain Castle buzzing with the preparation for young Robert's knighting. Snow still clung to the ground in icy patches here and there, but there was much to be done; Robert was due to be knighted on Shrove Tuesday, which this year came early. Lacking a king to do the job, the soon-to-be Earl had requested to be knighted by "the best man in the land"--in other words, our hero. Needless to say, this was indeed a great honor for Herringdale.

His boosted spirits were dampened somewhat by a visit from Sir Brastias, Uther's old right hand man. Herringdale and Brastias had clashed many years ago when the latter accused the former of treason for his role in the disappearance and presumed death of Uther and Igraine's young babe. Since the death of Uther, Herringdale had heard, Brastias had refused to swear allegiance to another lord, instead traveling from court to court as a sort of itinerant banneret. His legendary Hospitality and Mercy easily winning out over whatever hurt feelings from past clashes that may have been lingering, Herringdale graciously welcomed Brastias to his court.

Brastias had, naturally, come to call upon Countess Ellen, who was still in residence at Du Plain. He brought tidings of weal and woe.

"Despite the tragic death of your husband King Nanteleod, it has been decided that the Supreme Collegium will reconvene in London next year to elect a new king as planned. As no clear candidate now exists, the matter will be left up to any of those who would venture the crown. To wit, there shall be a contest of arms and martial prowess between all candidates. The winner of this so-called 'tournament' will receive the blessing of the Supreme Collegium to try their hand at drawing the sword from the stone in front of St. Paul's."

Herringdale exchanged a surprised look with Ellen.

"This is good news indeed," said the Countess. "Perhaps the land will now be united under a king at last."

"That is certainly my hope as well," sighed Brastias. "Unfortunately, we are not there yet, and the southern counties remain in dire danger of attack from the Saxons and Cornwall alike. If I were you, I would make overtures to repair your relationship with King Idres. The damage may have already been done, but send an envoy to feel things out. As for the Saxons..."

"Is it war?" Herringdale said, his jaw clenched.

"Not yet, no," said Brastias. "I was a guest at the court of King Cerdic of Wessex on my way here. He is in residence at Caer Gwent, which they have renamed Winchester in their barbarous tongue. I would expect an envoy from Cerdic before the month is out, and you should be prepared to purchase peace dearly."

"Never!" Herringdale shouted, his voice ringing through his hall. Brastias looked startled, then smiled. Ellen raised a quelling hand.

"An admirable sentiment, Marshall, but who shall we raise to resist a Saxon invasion? After the losses of last year and years previous, you know as well as I that many of Salisbury's finest knights now lie in the ground, their heirs hardly older than my son. They need time to train, to consolidate. We need time."

Her eyes flickered to Robert, who was standing nearby.

Brastias stayed on as a guest at Du Plain castle while Ellen made preparations to return to Sarum. Before she could depart, however, an envoy from Wessex arrived, just as Brastias had predicted. It was none other than Prince Cynric, and he strode into Du Plain's hall with his shoulders thrown back, his chest puffed out, an arrogant sneer on his face. As he gave Ellen the curtest of bows, he flashed a triumphant smile at Sir Herringdale, who had come so close to laying the Prince low at Nentley Marsh the year before.

King Cerdic's terms were simple: submit to Wessex as a vasal, or pay triple tribute, or be destroyed. Ellen chose the lesser of three evils and agreed to submit a massive tribute payment to Cerdic by Midsummer's Day.

As Cynric departed and the court dissolved into knots of worried conversations, Ellen pensively gnawed at her thumb. Herringdale knew what she was worrying over: there was already a levy in effect for the knighting of Robert. With the addition of triple tribute, the county would suffer dearly this year.

The next day, Herringdale issued orders to his steward, the Sherriff of Harewood: the peasants of his lands were not to be taxed to pay for Robert's knighting. Rather, Herringdale would be fronting the levy from his own personal coffers. He was not the only one who displayed such modesty and generosity, either. As he would later find out, young Robert had also issued an order of his own to divert much of the money earmarked for his ceremony towards paying the Saxon levy.

Ellen and her court, along with the Countess of Rydychan, departed Du Plain later that week. Herringdale was to personally escort Robert to Sarum two days before his knighting ceremony. It was during this time that Herringdale found out about Robert's generosity regarding his knighting ceremony. It seemed the county would be in good hands.

The appointed day arrived. Herringdale, along with Brastias and a company of mounted archers, made ready to depart for Sarum with Robert. They would be marching on a Sunday, so first they all attended mass in the castle's chapel. As they were filing out afterwords, several parishioners gave cries of alarm. Looking around, Herringdale was at first confused to see them pointing skywards. Gazing up at the clear blue sky, he saw what he took at first to be a great falcon before realizing that it was sailing far too high up to be visible at this distance unless it was a truly massive creature. It began to descend towards Du Plain in great spiraling circles, and as it did so it became clearer and larger...and larger...and larger. Soon there could be no doubt--it was a dragon!

Herringdale sprang into action. Along with Brastias and Robert, he retreated to the keep to don his armor and mount his charger. Before he did so, he shouted curt directions for the castellan to see to the defense of the village.

In the quarter hour it took for the knights to re-emerge armored for war, the great dragon had descended upon Du Plain village. Under the castellan's able directions, most of its residents had fled to the safety of the castle's bailey with what livestock they could gather up on such short notice. The dragon, meanwhile, had begun to wreak havoc among the peasant hovels of the village. If left unchecked, it would undoubtedly tear the village apart, then attack the castle itself!

Quickly, in the middle of a chaotic scene of terrified humanity crowding into the bailey, Herringdale devised a plan with Brastias. A Criticalled Valorous roll sparked Herringdale to volunteer himself as bait for the dragon while Brastias led the mounted archers into a position of ambush. Robert, not to be dissuaded, insisted on riding with Brastias.

And so, as the ambush party snuck out the postern gate, Herringdale rode forth, alone and proud, his lance held high, out the main gate and down towards the village...

The dragon, finding precious few cattle or humans to munch on, was perched atop a sagging thatched roof, its beady eyes watching Herringdale cagily as he approached. When he got within about 50 yards of the beast, Herringdale stood up in his stirrups, raising his lance in challenge, his heart hammering in his chest.

"Hail, dragon! If you have come to challenge the lord of these lands, then you have found him, armored and ready for battle!"

With a great rumbling snort, the dragon took to the air, its great bat-like leathery wings flapping. It only took two beats to cover the distance, giving Herringdale just enough time to sit back in his saddle and brace for impact, urging Smuggy III forward at the last moment to drive his lance into the creature's scaly skin.

All was a tumbling tumult and then Herringdale was lying on the ground, thrown clear from his mount. His lance was shattered. The dragon's roar of pain and anger told Herringdale that he had left the tip of his lance in the beast's side. Before him, Smuggy III lay thrashing on the ground, gripped with death spasms, blood squirting everywhere in great gouts; the dragon had torn away the horse's head and most of its throat.

Suddenly there was a tremendous CRACKLE-BANG!, as if a bolt of lightning had struck quite nearby. The dragon, which had been wheeling about for another pass, instead took to the open skies with a massive beat of its wings. Within minutes, it was a mere dot on the horizon.

Herringdale looked about, searching for signs of his ambush party or the source of the loud noise. Peering into the nearby woods where he expected to see Brastias and his men emerging, Herringdale instead discerned a single gaunt figure emerging. The man, who had bronzed skin, long scraggly hair, and a vacant, far-away stare, seemed to not notice Herringdale at first. He strode out into the open, inhaling deeply the fresh air, his eyes closed as if in pleasure. Despite the early spring chill and his ragged robes, he seemed quite comfortable and at ease. Suddenly he set his piercing gaze upon Herringdale. He bore queer decorations on his skin; between his eyes a red dot had been daubed, and his hands and arms were covered with intricate, spiraling designs and sigils rendered in a dark brown ink of some kind.

"Ah. Good day, sir knight."

Without another word, he strode off down the slope towards the river, his robes billowing behind him.

"Merlin," Herringdale muttered, shaking his head. So the wizard had returned. What would it mean for Britain?

Mere minutes later, the sound of thrashing in the undergrowth announced the hurried arrival of Brastias, Robert, and the archers. Herringdale told them what had transpired. When he mentioned Merlin, Brastias spat.

"Another plague for us to contend with, then!" he said, his face reddening. Herringdale remained silent. He wasn't sure what to think at this point...

[N.B.: That whole chapter arose from a roll during the Winter Phase ("Dragon Raid" on the yearly events chart). This is why we play the previous year's Winter Phase during the start of the next session; it lets us weave random events into the narrative. Anyone who's faced a dragon in this game knows that they are not to be flexed with. Again Herringdale's luck when facing off against monstrously powerful foes held; I mean, 16d6 damage! Yikes! I went with the rule from the Book of Battle that odd-numbered damage is applied to the horse instead of the rider when I rolled damage, so Smuggy III took the brunt of the hit. Otherwise, Des would have probably been rolling up a new character. I awarded one-tenth the dragon's Glory for merely going toe-to-toe. I wove in the reappearance of Merlin since it worked for future plot developments and because, frankly, if I'd had the combat go on for even another round I would have been guilty of murder.]

After leaving instructions with his castellan to arrange for the purchase of a new warhorse, Herringdale departed for Sarum with Robert and Brastias, cheered from the castle by his grateful subjects. Riding a little harder than they'd originally intended, they were able to reach Sarum by sundown. Robert immediately disappeared to begin preparations for his ceremony; on the morrow he would begin a 24-hour purification ceremony and vigil leading up to the actual dubbing on the morning of Shrove Tuesday. Herringdale, for his part, relaxed and related his tale of facing off against a dragon to Sarum's captivated courtiers, the number of which was growing as the day went on; nearly all of Salisbury was turning out for Robert's knighting, and many noblemen from neighboring lands as well, most of whom were welcomed to Ellen's court graciously. It was with dismay, however, that Herringdale noted the arrival of the last nobleman he would have wanted present for the ceremony - Prince Mark of Cornwall. Basic rules of etiquette prevented Herringdale from striking out at the Cornish prince, but he resolved to keep a close eye on the snake for the duration of his stay in Salisbury.

Shrove Tuesday came at last and Herringdale was present at Sarum's grand basillica as Robert concluded his vigil and was blessed by the bishop and priests before proceeding in a grand parade up to the castle. There, Ellen presided over the ceremony. At his cue, Herringdale stepped forward.

"Let this be the last blow you receive without due recourse."

At that he slapped Robert hard across the face, leaving a great red handprint on his cheek. Herringdale was pleased to see that Robert did not flinch from the blow, instead glaring up into Herringdale's eyes with fierce defiance.

A squire handed Herringdale a sword.

"I dub thee Sir Robert. Receive now your spurs, your arms, and this, my sword. Arise, Sir Knight."

A great cheer rose from the packed assembly in the hall, and church bells throughout the city began to toll in celebration. Sooner than Herringdale would have thought possible, the hall had been set with tables to seat the distinguished guests and he found himself sitting at the High Table. Ellen was at his right, Countess Lyaze at his left. Two seats down from Lyaze, Herringdale saw Prince Mark take a seat, his cagey eyes sweeping the hall.

Throughout the feast (which witnessed the debut of new Feast Tables I found over on the Pendragon Round Table forums; I like them quite a bit because they utilize an APP roll, actually making that attribute useful for once!), Herringdale stayed mostly quiet, politely eating, drinking, and conversing with the two countesses to either side of him. During the final course, Countess Lyaze rose, saying she was tired and wished to retire early. Herringdale offered to escort her from the hall and she accepted. They strolled to the side door which gave access to the guest chambers below Countess Ellen's quarters.

At the door, the Countess paused. "That young priest I've been traveling with, Pertoines."

"The learned young man?" Herringdale asked.

"The same. You know of his quest? He says he is to fulfill a prophecy by founding a collegium at the town of Ox Ford in my county."

"Indeed? A noble goal," said Herringdale.

"Yes..." said the Countess. She seemed distracted for a moment, then regained her focus. "He would speak to you of his quest," she said simply. Lyaze bid Herringdale good night and he left her there, returning to the hall to keep an eye on Mark.

Coming back to the hall, he found that in his absence the final course had been cleared away, as had the guest tables. The main floor of the hall was now given over to dancing as a troupe of minstrels that had been providing gentle background music throughout the afternoon kicked into a lively roundel. As Countess Lyaze had predicted, Pertoines approached Herringdale.

"Sir Marshall, may I have a word?" he asked, his prominent adam's apple bobbing on his long, thin neck.

"Certainly. Is this regarding the prophecy you mean to fulfill? Countess Lyaze told me of it."

"Did she? Very good. Then you perhaps know why I am seeking your help?"

"I'm afraid I don't," said Herringdale, nonplussed.

"Well, as you know, the Countess has been living in exile ever since her husband and the rightful ruler of Rydychan, Earl Bledri, was killed at the feast of St. Albans. Shortly after that great tragedy, a trio of young brothers, former vassals of Bledri, seized power in the county. These rascals, the de Wallingford brothers, claimed a woman had no right to rule the county and that they would rule as regents until her son came of age. But although he has since reached majority, the de Wallingford brothers refuse to relinquish control. They have earned something of a reputation as isolationists and robber knights, and I fear that should I attempt to cross into Rydychan unescorted I will be thrown into one of their dungeons."

"So it might seem," Herringdale mused.

"As you are one of the greatest knights of the realm, I thought that perhaps if you were to escort me..."

Herringdale gave it some thought. One of his squires many years ago, young Beleus, had been called back to Rydychan by his brothers to be knighted and claim his inheritance. Could Beleus have been one of these de Wallingfords? The family name certainly sounded familiar. It might provide a powerful bargaining chip and enable Pertoines to complete his quest.

"Very well, priest," said Herringdale. "I will do as you ask. Come to Du Plain castle a fortnight after Easter and we shall ride for Rydychan."

"Oh, bless you sir!" said Pertoines, bowing repeatedly, smiling broadly. "There is much to do between now and Easter! I must hurry and see to my affairs--until next we meet!" And with that he bustled away.

Herringdale moved out into the main hall but hung back, watching the dancers. Most folks seemed to be enjoying themselves, save for a young lady who was dancing with Prince Mark and his Cornish goons. On two occassions, Mark refused other knights who requested a dance with the young lady, and Herringdale could tell she was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable. He strode across the hall, cutting through the dancers, until he came right up to the Cornish gaggle. They were sitting this dance out, and Mark was talking to two rather beefy, unshaven knights in his service. Herringdale addressed the young lady.

"You are one of Countess Ellen's handmaidens, are you not?" he asked. She nodded meekly, glancing at Mark, who had stopped talking mid-sentence and was staring at Herringdale with fire in his eyes.

"The Countess bade me find you; she would like a word," said Herringdale. He offered his arm, and the lady took it. He led her away from the Cornishmen, who all stared daggers after him, not daring to contradict the wishes of their hostess.

"I wasn't being entirely truthful," Herringdale confessed as they walked. "The Countess did not send me to fetch you. I just figured you'd fancy a dance with someone new for a change."

The maiden smiled broadly. "Thank you, Sir Marshall!" she said, scarcely concealing her delight. To dance with one of the most famous knights in Britain would make her the envy of all her peers.

As a new tune was struck up, the pair began to dance. Herringdale examined her face. She was a comely lass, no doubt about it, even if she was wearing some of the latest silly fashions favored by young noblewomen, covering her hair with a great expanse of cloth, her sleeves let out into great dangling cuffs.

"Forgive me, but I do not know your name," said Herringdale.

"I am Lady Jenna," she said. "I just started serving m'lady last year at my uncle's behest--he's the Castellan of Mildenhall in Marlborough."

"And how do you find Sarum and Salisbury?" Herringdale asked.

"Very well, thank you! Although I must confess that being this much closer to the Saxons..."

"Are you worried I will not be able to protect you?" Herringdale asked wryly, as he gave her a turn.

"No! I didn't mean it that--"

"Tut tut," Herringdale chided mockingly. But then he grew more serious. "You are right to have concern. I do not know what the future may hold, and the Saxons are devious foes."

The dance ended and Herringdale and Jenna took a seat on a bench along the wall. Staring into her lap, Jenna fiddled with a jeweled ring.

"The ladies of court, we've been talking about what to do if...if..."

"Go on," said Herringdale.

"I've a pair of sturdy boots for cross-country travel stowed away in my chest. Some of the other girls have laughed at me, but they'll get me through the muck and mud if it comes to that. I'd rather take my chances in the wastes than become a Saxon slave."

"A prudent attitude," Herringdale said, nodding.

"But isn't there some hope? What of the meeting in London--the, uh, 'tourney'?"

Herringdale rubbed his stubbled chin. "The Collegium has tried before to pick a king and failed. But perhaps they have the right idea this time, leaving it up to the lords who wish to try for the glory."

Jenna shot Herringdale a sly glance. "Will you be one of the lords so trying?"

Herringdale laughed. "Perhaps! We shall see, we shall see..."

As he looked out over the hall, he saw Prince Mark and his entourage departing.

"Er, excuse me, lady. It was truly a pleasure." Herringdale stood and bowed, then hurried from the hall, his cloak billowing behind him as he fastened it about his shoulders.

The sun had gone down by now and a blanket of stars was coming out in the clear night overhead. Herringdale's keen eyes picked out Mark's group making their shadowy way out of the castle bailey. Quietly, he followed them down into the streets of Sarum.

They did not go far. A large public drinking house, brightly lit inside and raucous with drunken laughter, loomed out of the darkness. Herringdale watched as Mark and his men disappeared inside. After a moment's hesitation, he followed.

Herringdale stepped through the open door. Before him was a low-celinged common room thick with smoke from a central fire pit. A rough and random collection of tables had been arrayed around the room, each one packed with hard-bitten men ranging from footmen to sergeants to squires to poor knights. Mark and his men had taken a seat at a table in a far, dark corner.

"Oh dear..." Herringdale muttered. This did not seem like a place he should be, all alone especially. Unfortunately, as he turned to leave he heard someone call for him from across the crowded room. Wincing, he turned back to see several low-ranking Salisbury knights waving for him to come join them at their table.

[I employed a nifty little house rule I've started using lately to see if Herringdale would be recognized before he could leave. It's called a Glory Roll and is 1/1000th the knight's Glory or less on a d20. I use it whenever there's a question of whether something will befall Herringdale, for good or ill. The more famous a knight, after all, the more likely they are to, say, be the primary target of an attack or be picked out of a crowd or what have you.]

Although he would have preferred to leave, he did not want to be rude. Aware that Mark was watching him as he crossed the common room, Herringdale had a seat. A buxom ale wife sidled up to him with a clay tankard filled to the brim with fresh, frothy ale.

"On the house, luv," she said with a wink. Completely out of his element, Herringdale drained the pint in one and ordered another round for the whole table. As the evening wore on, more of the tavern-goers gathered around the Salisbury table, coaxing Herringdale for stories of his many exploits and plying him with ale. At the very least, the sheer weight of people gathering around him prevented the Cornish contingent from drawing near or causing trouble. Instead, young barmaids draped themselves on his shoulders and across his lap, laughing gaily at his jokes and stroking his cheek affectionately.

Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was the attention being shown him after so many years of loneliness, but as the night dissolved into a drunken haze, Herringdale was vaguely aware of climbing a rickety staircase to the ale house's attic...

...The next morning, he awoke in a tiny straw cot. A young wench was draped across his bare chest. Looking around blearily, he could see about a dozen other beds. About half were occupied by lone women, but the rest also had a pair snoozing away under the blankets. Somewhere a whispered conversation was taking place.

Herringdale hurriedly slipped out of bed; his partner muttered something drunkenly, then fell back asleep. Dressing quickly, he raced down the stairs and out of the public house as quickly as his hungover head would allow. Within the hour, he had collected his things from Sarum Castle and was on the road with Baldrick, bound for Du Plain Castle.

It was looking like he'd have to postpone a trip up north to visit Meleri yet again. During the ride back to Du Plain, he resolved to send for her. The North had been calm the last couple  years and the roads should be safe enough if he sent an escort of knights to fetch her. She needed to find out about her mother's death, and it would be better if she found out in person. Unfortunately, Herringdale would likely be away in Rydychan by the time Meleri arrived. When he got back to Du Plain, he sought out his eldest daughter, Heledd, and told her of his plans. He then dictated a letter to his clerk and gave it to Heledd.

"This contains the news about your mother. Break it to your sister as you see fit if she arrives before I return from Rydychan."

[We broke for the evening at this point, making this year the first two-part session we've had in a while. The action picked up again six weeks later after Pertoines had arrived at Du Plain.]

Herringdale elected to travel without an entourage, taking only his squire Baldrick along to Rydychan. And so the knight and squire rode out from Du Plain in mid-April, accompanied by the young priest riding an ass. They stopped for an overnight at Sarum hall, greeting Sir Robert (who by now was styling himself Earl of Salisbury; without a king to invest him, his title had to effectively be self-appointed) and Countess Ellen. The next day they rode on to Upavon, home to one of Herringdale's vassals, Sir Pedrag, who put his lord up in his own private quarters.

The next day the trio made their way along the dirt road leading north to the boundary of Salisbury, Ambrosius' Dike, a massive earthen wall constructed by the first Pendragon. As they surmounted the Dike, they could see for miles in every direction, looking out over the Savernake Forest to the north and the rising Marlborough Downs far off on the horizon.

Descending the Dike, they entered the Savernake and soon heard the sound of alarm bells and barking dogs. They had clearly crossed into Marlborough and their approach had been noted. Sure enough, within minutes a party of three knights and about 20 footmen appeared on the road ahead, blocking the party's progress.

"Halt! Who goes there?" called one of the knights.

"It is I, Sir Herringdale, Marshall of Salisbury, traveling with my squire and a priest by the name of Pertoines."

The knights immediately rode forward, grinning broadly. "I told you it was Sir Herringdale!" one of them said in a carrying whisper. The knights' captain extended his hand, which Herringdale clasped.

"It is an honor, sir!" the captain said. "Allow us to escort you to the hall of our lord, the Castellan of Mildenhall."

"Lady Jenna's uncle!" Herringdale thought to himself. "Very well," he said. "Ride on!"

The road made its way along the periphery of the Savernake Forest, wending its way between woods to the east and hills to the west, before coming out to broad farmland just as the sun began to sink towards the horizon.

"We should be able to make Mildenhall by sunset," said the captain. He proved true to his word; after taking a ferry across the Kennet River, the escort rode into the unwalled market town of Mildenhall. A stone manor house sat perched on a rise overlooking the town center, and it was here that Herringdale was taken.

The Castellan received Herringdale graciously and hospitably, ordering that a small feast be laid out in the Marshall's honor that very evening and also offering to give up his private chambers for Herringdale's use. Accepting gratefully, Herringdale in return provided the latest news from Salisbury, including word of the Castellan's niece. He also told the Castellan of the reason for his journey. At this point the old knight grew concerned.

"Rydychan is not safe, my lord," said the Castellan. "Word has it that even its own people have begun to fear their lords, who have grown increasingly tyrannical as their power has grown."

"Be that as it may," said Herringdale, "I have given my word to see Pertoines here safely to Ox Ford, and this I shall do."

"Well, if any can do it, it is you, sir!" said the Castellan, raising his pewter goblet in a toast.

The next day, Herringdale, Baldrick, and Pertoines departed from Mildenhall with the Castellan's blessing and directions to the town of Uffington in the White Horse Vale, the northernmost portion of Marlborough County. From Mildenhall, the trio joined the old Roman road north through the Marlborough Downs. As they came out of the Downs, Herringdale spotted the massive form of Badon Hill squatting on the horizon.

This landmark was Herringdale's signal, as per the Castellan's directions, to look for the ancient path called The Ridgeway that crossed the Marlborough downs from west to east and carried on towards White Horse Vale and the Lambourne Downs. Finding The Ridgeway soon enough, the trio turned east, riding through gentle rolling grasslands and passing through several villages and accompanying acres of cultivated farmland. As the day grew long, they reached the branch in the road that would take them north to Uffington through White Horse Vale.

The Vale's namesake was barely visible in the fading light, and the riders quickened their pace to make Uffington before dark. They rode into the unwalled town on the Ock River well after twilight, and could just make out the silhouette of the town's manor house against the indigo sky.

Despite the late hour, Herringdale was again welcomed warmly by the manor's lord, a young country knight. A modest meal was laid out and Herringdale discussed his plans with the lord. Again he received a warning about the suspicion shown outsiders by the de Wallingford brothers.

"Do not make for Wallingford, for there resides Sir Basile, eldest of the brothers," the knight warned. "The abbey of Abingdon is home to a community of black monks, and they are friendly to travelers as a general rule. It is on the way to Ox Ford, at any rate."

The next morning, Herringdale thanked the young knight for his help and, after fording the Ock, rode along the trail north, crossing into Rydychan at last. He rode openly, yet quickly and with purpose, passing swiftly through farming villages and market towns without pause. Nonetheless, he knew his presence had been noted and was sure that it wouldn't be long before word of his passage reached the ear of one of the de Wallingford brothers.

By mid-afternoon, the trio had reached the stout walls of Abbingdon abbey. They were admitted by monks in black robes, their hair tonsured in the Roman Christian fashion. After their mounts were stabled, the party was shown to the dining hall, where they were given a modest meal of barley soup, bread, and bacon. After dinner, Herringdale was shown to the offices of the abbot.

"What brings you to our humble abbey?" asked the portly monk.

Herringdale introduced Pertoines and explained his mission.

"Ah yes, I had heard something of that prophecy many years ago." He gave Pertoines a searching look. "And you feel that it is yours to fulfill this prophecy?"

"I do," Pertoines answered simply.

"Then I shall not stand in your way," said the abbot. "But neither can I assist you in your journey. Sir Basile leaves us be, and that is how we like it. I am not sure if he would continue to do so if he thought we were aiding foreigners."

Herringdale gripped the arm of his chair tightly. He was getting frankly tired of hearing about these de Wallingford brothers. "If you do not help us, then you hinder us!" he growled.

Pertoines placed a quelling hand on Herringdale's, and the Marshall fell silent, muttering an apology.

"If young Father Pertoines here succeeds in fulfilling the prophecy," the abbot said, somewhat flustered, "I will do all I can to help build the new collegium into a renowned center of learning. But until such time as he has established the place, he will be counted as a foreigner and trespasser, and I cannot risk bringing the ire of any of the brothers down upon our abbey."

"I understand," said Herringdale, rising. "Thank you for your hospitality. We will depart at first light and trouble your abbey no more. Tell me--who is lord of Ox Ford?"

"The brother called Sir Beleus."

"I see. Interesting," said Herringdale with a meaningful look at Pertoines. As they left the abbot's office and headed back to the dormitory, Herringdale explained about his connection to Beleus.

"The Lord works in mysterious ways!" Pertoines exclaimed happily.

The guest dormitory had 20 beds, but all were empty save the three occupied by Herringdale and his companions. As Herringdale was preparing to bed down, he happened to glance out a window into the central courtyard, and he paused, startled at what he saw. A young monk was leaving through the main gate, mounted on an ass to which he was applying the switch vigorously. Where could a monk be headed at this time of night in such haste?

Slipping his tunic back on and girding his sword, Herringdale hustled to the stables, where he retrieved his rouncey. In the ten minutes or so that it took to do this, the monk, on his dark mule and dressed in his black robes, had disappeared into the darkening night. Herringdale examined the road outside the gates and found a fresh trail of donkey prints leading north along the dirt path. He rode north, but after only about a half-mile of riding he reached a crossroads. The path he was on continued north, but another path diverged and headed back southeast, dipping down into a shaded vale. Again Herringdale dismounted and examined the road, but the earth was much harder-packed here, and in the increasing gloom he could not make out any tracks. He resolved to ride north.

After a couple miles of riding along the twisting road, he had yet to find anyone. Cursing as he realized that he had chosen the wrong branch, he backtracked through the darkness, and was soon hammering on the gates of the abbey with the pommel of his sword until a startled monk let him back in.

Back in the dormitory, Herringdale fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, exhausted from days of travel. At this point I called for an Energetic/Lazy roll. Despite Herringdale's decent Energetic, he failed that roll and proceeded to make his Lazy roll. So Herringdale slept late, much to his detriment. He was awoken by Baldrick, who had to shake him hard to wake him. Blearily, Herringdale looked around the dormitory. There stood the abbot and Pertoines, but closer by stood 10 knights, all bearing the same livery, an unfamiliar device. One of the knights stepped forward.

"By order of Sir Basile de Wallingford, you are under arrest. You are to come to Wallingford to answer charges of trespass."

Calmly, Herringdale rose from his bed. He dressed quickly, and told Baldrick to remain behind at the abbey. Mounting Baldrick's palfrey, he and Pertoines rode with the knights to Wallingford, which lay down the southeast trail Herringdale had not followed the night before.

Arriving after a couple hours' ride, Herringdale found Wallingford to be a small unwalled town on the banks of the Thames, dominated by the motte-and-bailey edifice of Wallingford castle. It was to the castle that he and Pertoines were immediately taken. Told to leave their mounts in the bailey, they were brought up to the castle's keep. As he entered the wooden hall, Herringdale looked around in amazement. Despite the provincial setting, the hall was richly decorated with fine tapestries on the walls and banners hanging from the rafters.

"My lord," said the knight-captain, "the foreigners."

A young knight stood at the far end of the hall, imperiously dispensing orders to a gaggle of subordinates. He was dressed superlatively, draped in a fine sable fur cloak, his hands protected by tooled leather gloves. He turned and surveyed Herringdale and Pertoines with an arrogant, would-be regal expression.

"Ah, good. The abbot told me he had guests." Sir Basile fairly minced over to Herringdale and looked him up and down, his nose wrinkling at the smell of horse sweat and road dust that still clung to him after so many days of travel.

"So," said Sir Basile [as I proceeded to Crit his Suspicious (Foreigners) roll], "you have come to my lands under the guise of a holy mission, or so the abbot claims. What do you have to say for yourselves?"

Pertoines explained his mission and his intentions. Sir Basile listened, his face still a mask of arrogance, but as the priest finished his tale, he rubbed his hands thoughtfully. "There is merit in what you do, priest, if you speak the truth. Our land's wealth and prestige would be enhanced by such an institution. But tell me: why bring a knight with you if you are on a mission of peace and learning?"

"Because the good Father was afraid of falling victim to your legendary hospitality," Herringdale said, a derisive laugh on his lips. Sir Basile looked as if he had just been slapped, but recovered his usual arrogant composure quickly.

"If you are disrespecting me in my own hall, sir, then perhaps a stay in my donjon will teach you some manners. Seize him!"

Ten knights converged on Herringdale. Unarmed and unarmored as he was, he had little choice but to allow himself to be taken prisoner. The last Herringdale saw of Pertoines, the priest was giving him a helpless look over Sir Basile's shoulder. Then Herringdale was being led down a spiral staircase, into the earth, and to a stout barred door. The door was flung open and Herringdale was tossed inside. In the split second before the door was slammed shut, he could see that he had been cast into a windowless chamber with stone walls and ceiling and a dirt floor. About a half dozen men, all looking startled and some looking frankly startling with their gaunt faces and long beards, were blinking back at him in the sudden illumination provided by a torch held by one of the guards. Then the door slammed shut and all was blackness again.

"Another recipient of Sir Basile's hospitality! Welcome, guest, to our humble quarters!" came a voice out of the darkness.

"Who are you all?" Herringdale asked.

"We are knights like yourself who have run afoul of the de Wallingford brothers in some way. I am Sir Bandelaine, a knight of Silchester."

"What did you do?" asked Herringdale.

"I made the mistake of thinking I could ride through these lands on my way to visit my cousin in Wuerensis. How very mistaken I was! Sir Bege, Basile's shiftless brother, put me under arrest in Shirburn and accused me of spying for Duke Ulfius. He handed me over to Sir Basile, and here I rot. These brothers, they don't even accept payment of ransom in return for release! Some of us like Sir Adtherp over here--" (A mad cackle gave away the position of one of the gaunt, bearded knights...) "--have lost track of how long they've been down here, so long has it been since they last saw the sun."

"Lovely," Herringdale muttered. Despite the total darkness, he got up and started pacing the dimensions of the cell. Periodically he would literally stumble across another captive, sitting prostrate against the wall, and introduce himself. There were four other knights and even a priest, Father Gauter, who, Herringdale learned, had given Sir Basile some bad advice and was now paying for his impertinence with a stay in the donjon. The other captives let Herringdale go about his business with an air of resignation, as if they'd all done the same thing when they first arrived as well.

The cell was bout 10 by 15 feet. The floor was packed dirt, and the stone walls were well mortared. The single door was thick oak reinforced with iron bands. A small slot in the base of the door slid back in the morning to admit a tray of bread and a skin of water to share among the the captives. In the evening, the slot slid open again to take the tray back along with the communal chamberpot, which was emptied and returned with the next morning's food. The door itself was  only opened when it was time to admit another prisoner.

After learning all this, Herringdale did like his cellmates and flopped against the wall, resigned to his fate. Days passed into weeks. He passed the time by entertaining the others with stories of his exploits, and they proved a most appreciative audience. Finally, after two months of captivity, the door opened once more.

Herringdale had been asleep at the time, and groggily looked up into the passage beyond. Two figures stood in the doorway. One was holding a torch, and the light from it nearly blinded Herringdale. Covering his eyes, he rose.

"Who's there?" he asked, as the other prisoners also got to their feet.

"It is I Sir Herringdale!" It was the voice of Pertoines, the priest. "I have come to rescue you!"

"Then we're taking the rest of the prisoners too," said Herringdale.

"Now wait a minute, uh, that wasn't part of the deal!" said the other figure hurriedly in a somewhat whiny voice. There was a familiarity in the voice that Herringdale couldn't quite place.

"It is if I say it is!" Herringdale barked.

"Yes, m'lord," the figure mumbled, chastised. Herringdale moved forward, his eyes still stinging in the blazing torch light. The man who stood before him was clearly a knight, a young one at that, with unkempt hair and a scruffy beard. Eventually, it clicked.

"Beleus?" Herringdale asked. If so, he had aged horribly.

Sir Beleus flashed his former lord a cocky smile. "The same."

Herringdale took his old squire in a quick, grateful embrace, then motioned for the other captives to follow him. Hardly daring to believe what was happening, they tottered out of the cell, Sir Adtherp muttering and laughing to himself.

The hall was deserted save for the sleeping forms of the castle's household knights; it was clearly nighttime. The escape party stealthily stole through the hall, then emerged out into the starlit evening. Herringdale breathed deeply of the fresh air.

"We, uh, didn't bring enough horses," Beleus said. Down in the courtyard, several household knights were waiting, holding the reins of about a half-dozen riding horses.

"We'll ride two men to a horse," said Herringdale. "At least as far as Abbingdon abbey."

"Baldrick is still there, sir," said Pertoines. "He has remained behind, disguised as a monk. He has your harness and weapons still."

The party mounted up and rode hard out of Wallingford Castle. They did not stop until the town was out of sight. As they slowed to a gentle canter, Herringdale questioned Pertoines.

"How did you escape Sir Basile's attentions?"

"The Lord Himself only knows," said Pertoines. "Perhaps your reputation focused his ire on you. Certainly, it gave me a chance to appeal to his vanity and position myself against you; I hope you'll forgive me, but it was all I could think to do."

"Well, you also sprang me from the dungeons; we'll call it even," said Herringdale. "So I take it you have succeeded in your mission?"

"Indeed! The collegium is shaping up nicely and already scholars from across the land have come to study there."

Pertoines lowered his voice.

"I would have come for you sooner, but it took some time to convince Sir Beleus to go behind his brother's back."

[The rescue was owed to Beleus failing his Love (Family) roll (no mean feat, as it's at a 17) and Herringdale making his Glory roll.]

At Abbingdon, Herringdale took his leave of Pertoines, Beleus, and the other knights, who were going to ride on to Ox Ford and thence out of the county to points north, east, and west. Herringdale promised to visit Pertoines at some point in the future, but for now he was determined to leave Rydychan well behind him, the faster the better.

His reunion with Baldrick was joyful and tearful. Without pausing to rest, Herringdale mounted up on his rouncey, his sword again at his side. He and Baldrick then rode for Uffington. They did not take the main road, as by now it was likely their absence had been noted. Using his superior Hunting skills, Herringdale struck out overland, sticking to country lanes and deer paths as he wended his way through hostile territory.

The sun rose and still he pressed on. All through the day, he and Baldrick moved through the wilderness, doing their best to stay out of sight. At one point Herringdale was pretty sure a shepherd may have spotted the duo making their way through his pastures, but otherwise they encountered not another living soul, to say nothing of hostile opposition.

The sun set, but Herringdale did not stop to rest [obviously making up for the earlier missed roll, one Energetic roll after another came up a success]. Around midnight, he reached the babbling bank of the Ock River. After some searching, he found a ford and crossed the river. It was only once he emerged on the other side that he felt well and truly safe.

Urging his exhausted steed onward, he rode through White Horse Vale, eventually picking up The Ridgeway. By dawn, he was coming down out of the Marlborough Downs and approaching Mildenhall.

As the sun rose into the sky, Herringdale and Baldrick slumped into the courtyard of Mildenhall Manor, exhausted but triumphant. They were welcomed by the startled Castellan, who quickly saw to their needs. Herringdale slept for 24 hours straight, then spent two more days as a guest of the Castellan before pressing on. Three days later, he was back at Du Plain Castle. His two daughters waited for him there and welcomed him home joyfully. He told them of his travails and captivity and made a solemn vow never to return to Rydychan as long as the de Wallingford brothers remained in power.

As it transpired, he would not have to wait long before that would cease to be the case. As winter approached, word reached Du Plain that Sir Bandelaine had returned to Silchester and raised an army, which had then marched on Rydychan. The forces mustered by the de Wallingfords proved no match, and Sir Basile and Sir Bege were hung from gibbets, but Sir Beleus had escaped. Since he had Criticalled his Intrigue roll, Herringdale heard that the rumor was that Bandelaine had tacitly allowed Beleus to escape into the Forest Sauvage as recompense for freeing him from Basile's dungeons.

At this happy news, Herringdale rode for Sarum to call upon Countess Lyaze and deliver word that she was free to return to her homeland for the first time in 15 years. The Countess wept for joy and insisted on inviting Herringdale along so that she might have a chance to rectify his poor impressions of her county. The Marshall graciously accepted, and made ready to move his household to Ox Ford for the winter. He had heard that the Countess had a son about Heledd's age, and was interested in exploring the possibility of a strategic marriage alliance.

A month later, as the snows began to fall, Herringdale found himself at the hall of Ox Ford's great stone shell keep. Lyaze's son was well mannered enough, but there was something not quite right about him. Maybe it was the way that he looked more at Herringdale than at his daughters...

One day, near Yuletide, the two noblemen were out for a hunt in the woods when the young knight made an advance. He drew close, backing Herringdale against a tree, looking deeply into his eyes. Suddenly, Herringdale felt an overwhelming urge to flee. Knocking the Countess's son aside, he hurried away, remounting his horse and galloping off [another Fumbled Lustful (Men) roll!]. The remainder of the winter was spent in cordial contact with the Countess and her court, but Herringdale diplomatically rebuffed her suggestions of arranging a marriage between their children. As the New Year approached, he returned to Du Plain to make ready for the coming London tournament. Perhaps he would compete after all and see how he fared...

[Wow, what a way to end off the Anarchy Phase! That last fumbled Lustful roll has Des really giving some thought to Herringdale's future love life. As for the "Oxford Usurpers" adventure...well, it certainly could have gone better, but it could have gone a lot worse too. Like any good RPG adventure, the outcome turned on several important dice rolls that could have drastically changed things had they gone differently--Herringdale's failed Hunting roll to track the monk going to alert Basile, his failed Energetic roll that allowed him to be caught by surprise, and Basile's criticalled Suspicious roll all had major repercussions. And as the text of the GPC says, "If the player knights do not succeed at this, someone else will." If Beleus had made his Love (Family) roll or Herringdale had failed his Glory roll, I was prepared to keep him in prison until early the following year, when some other conquerer would free him just in time to hustle to the London tournament.

And speaking of the tournament, I'm rubbing my hands in eager anticipation for next year. A new Phase, and the beginning of "Arthurian"-period gaming proper. This should be fun!]
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