Tuesday, September 7, 2010

[Solo GPC] 510: ...and Of Boy Kings (Part II)

 Picking up where we left off, then...

Having been crowned King of Logres to widespread jubilation and acclaim, Arthur was swept off in a grand procession bound for Carlion. This just so happened to be Herringdale's destination too. Arthur was going because the Supreme Collegium was reconvening in the ancient city to elect a High King. Herringdale was going because his daughter, Heledd, was due to marry King Alain of Escavalon. Don't you love it when character motivations line up with campaign events so neatly?

The procession was indeed a grand one. Many of the knights who had attended the fourth drawing of the sword from the stone rode with Arthur, and many more joined it as it snaked its way across Logres. Herringdale rode with his family, most of his vassals providing an escort of honor for the bride-to-be, a sort of procession within a procession.

Due to the preponderance of wagons, carts, draft animals, and ladies in the procession, progress was slow, and it took a full ten days to reach southern Cambria and the city of Carlion on the banks of the Usk river, which emptied into the Mouth of the Severn. The city was still a model Roman settlement, perfectly square in layout with neatly adorned buildings laid out in checkerboard fashion. King Alain (in accordance with the latest archeological findings) inhabited a massive palace complex outside the city proper.

Herringdale was just one knight among a sea of nobles and dignitaries crowding the great courtyard of the king's palace, where the Supreme Collegium was convening. It was a chaotic scene, but craning his neck over the heads of the crowd Herringdale could make out the Collegium members - or those who had managed to show up, at least - assembling on a raised dais, Arthur standing off to the side somewhat uncertainly. Herringdale spotted Earl Robert, dressed as the other members of the Collegium in Roman-style robes. There too was Duke Ulfius, King Cadwy, the Earls of Hampshire and Huntington, and Duke Derfel of Lindsey, among others. Archbishop Dubricus was also present, and he stepped forward and raised his hands as a call for silence. Gradually, the excited murmur of conversation that had been filling the courtyard died away.

"We, the members of the Supreme Collegium, being assembled in number sufficient to form a quorum, unanimously acclaim Arthur, King of Logres, as Imperator and Caesar of Britannia and Chief Warlord of the British Tribes!"

A great cheer went up from the assembly, and Arthur, who had borne the arms of Logres since his coronation ten days earlier, was handed a shield bearing the arms of the High King: seven gold crowns against a red background. The new High King was conveyed amongst much fanfare and pageantry into the palace's massive hall, where tables had been laid out for a grand feast. Herringdale escorted Lady Jenna into the hall; as one of the greatest knights in the realm, he was among the first presented before Arthur. However, as he did not hold a high noble rank, he was seated at a lower table, albeit in a position near to the high table.

Herringdale was seated with Lady Jenna to his right and Countess Ellen to his left. No longer the ruler of Salisbury, she was also relegated to a lower table while her young son, a powerful Earl and member of the Supreme Collegium, rubbed elbows with the mighty up at the High Table. But she seemed more dour than even a mere demotion in social status might have indicated. Herringdale struck up a conversation with her as the rest of the hall began to fill up with guests.

"All are in gay spirits now," she observed, "but that cannot last for long. Word has it that King Lot has gathered five other northern lords to his banner, and they are all marching to Carlion with their armies in tow. Something tells me they are not coming to offer their congratulations."

Herringdale smirked at the Countess's gallows humor, but knew she was right. So it was looking like Arthur was not destined to take the throne of the High King quietly. But there was little to do about it now - tonight there was much revelry to be had, and Herringdale was determined to enjoy the moment as much as possible.

And so commenced a feast for the ages. Dish after delectable dish was brought up from the cavernous kitchens below and laid first before the High King and then the other guests in order based on how closely they sat to the throne. Everyone indulged.

This was our first chance to really take my new Feast Tables for a proper spin, and they did not fail to disappoint. It helped that Herringdale was wearing his fancy duds, thereby raising his Appearance and making it more likely that he'd get caught up in events at the feast. For example, as he tucked into the feast's third course, he was hailed by a group of four knights seated a bit further down the table. They wanted the famous Sir Herringdale to weigh in on which of their deeds were more valorous. Instead (making his Proud roll), Herringdale joined in the boasting contest and schooled the upstarts with jaw-dropping tales of his exploits in the Forest Sauvage. Jenna gave him a winning smile once he'd finished, and a couple of the knights even applauded in spite of themselves.

There were so many courses to the feast that the food service was interspersed with chances to allow a bit of digestion and make more room, as it were. During one such break, a jester, garbed in an outrageous lampoon of the latest courtly fashions, presented himself before Arthur and the assembled festers. Herringdale had never seen the like - at least not outside the courts of the King of the Forest Sauvage. The coincidence that he had just been talking of the Sauvage King and his court was immediately arresting, and Herringdale watched, intrigued by this strange personage.

What ensued was a sequence of gambols, japes, pratfalls, and tumbles interspersed with such witty snatches of satire and jesting as Herringdale had never seen or heard before. He laughed and gaped with wonder at the jester's every turn, and when the performance came to a close, he rose to his feet, applauding as the jester tumbled from the hall. Yet, as he took his seat, he couldn't shake the powerful sense of déjà vu that he had seen this all before. Perhaps it had been in a dream - or some half-remembered memory from his time as a guest of the Sauvage King? Shaking his head, he tucked in to the Lamb in Hogepotte that had just been laid before him.

[This episode was an example of the sort of interesting and rare event that can crop up on the Feast Tables. Essentially, when the jester started performing, all those watching had to make a Worldly roll. Passing the roll meant the performance was engrossing and enjoyable...but critting the roll (as Herringdale did) meant that the observer was possessed of powerful feelings of coincidence. Mechanically, this gives the observer the chance to re-roll any one roll at some point later in the year (or force the GM to re-roll a roll). As we shall see, that re-roll would prove to come in very handy much sooner than anticipated.]

The feast went on. As the light outside the windows grew dim, another break was announced and the floor in the center of the hall was given over to dancing. Herringdale took Jenna for a spin around the dance floor, but as they made their way back to their seats they were stopped by a knight Herringdale had never seen before.

"Excuse me, sir, but I must ask your lovely wife a question," said the knight in a thick Cambrian accent. Herringdale looked at Jenna curiously, and she returned the look.

"By all means," said Herringdale.

"My lady," the knight said, "if I am not mistaken, I saw you conversing with my own wife, the Lady Esclarmonde, earlier this day. Is that so?"

Jenna brightened. "Oh yes, indeed!"

"Have you seen her of late?" the knight asked, his brow furrowed.

"Err..." Jenna seemed at a loss, her brow now also furrowed. "I'm sorry, but no, I haven't."

"What does she look like?" Herringdale asked. Jenna described her appearance and he cast his eyes around the massive hall. Then he spotted her - there, over near the colonnade...but she was dancing with another knight! Herringdale hesitated, but quickly decided on an Honest approach. Silently, he pointed her out to the knight. His face red, the Cambrian began pushing his way through the crowd of revelers. Herringdale watched as the knight took his wife roughly by the arm and led her from the hall. Shaking his head and trying not to think of the whipping that was in store for the poor woman, he sat down and began crunching on a handful of whole dry spices "to aid digestion" that had been placed in a wooden bowl on the table.

After three more courses, the final dish of the evening - a subtlety of spun sugar and marzipan shaped to look like the Sword in the Stone - was presented to the delight of the assembled diners. And then, at long last, the feast was done, and Herringdale rose, groaning, to his feet. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, someone was greeting him jovially. It took him a moment to register who it was: Sir Lak of Estregales. Except he was no longer merely a knight; like Alain, Lak was now the king of his homeland! Herringdale greeted his old friend with a bow and introduced Lady Jenna. Lak, in turn, introduced his own new bride, and she immediately addressed Jenna.

"I have heard tell of your facility with the loom and the needle, and your lovely dress bears witness to this fact. Tell me, can you make for me a dress as lovely as the one you wear tonight?"

Flattered to be addressed in such a way by a Queen, Jenna blushed slightly, but smiled and said "Of course!"

[This was, of course, another event from the new Feast Tables. The event directed that the wife needed to make a roll against Fashion. A Fumbled roll would result in an insult when the dress was delivered. Naturally, I proceeded to roll a natural 20 - Fumble! Des immediately cashed in her re-roll, although somewhat grumpily. Best not to insult a Queen, after all, but she was hoping to save that re-roll for something truly life-or-death. Ah well. The re-roll came up a success. The dress would meet with the Queen's approval and net some Glory for Jenna.]

As in London, Herringdale rented a room in Carlion, this time above a taberna. Since he had his wife and daughters with him, he shelled out coin sufficient to rent an entire floor. The next morning, he left his family in their rented flat to pay a visit to King Alain and discuss the details of the marriage to Heledd. As he emerged out onto the street, however, he quickly discerned that that discussion would have to wait.

Knights and soldiers, most in full armor of war, were running to and fro amid a palpable air of tension and uncertainty. Rather than making for the palace, Herringdale hurried instead to the old fortress that formed the cornerstone of Carlion's city walls, the castle known as La Tor Gigantic. Upon arriving at the great edifice, Herringdale found King Alain in council with Arthur and other lords.

"Ah, Marshall Herringdale. I'm glad you've come; I was preparing to send someone to fetch you," said Alain. "The situation is as follows: the armies of six northern lords have arrived and encamped outside the city walls. They are great in number and are led by King Lot of Lothian. We have not had word from them so far, but they are putting on a great show of force and I have ordered the walls manned and gates sealed."

At this point, young King Arthur spoke up. "I do not think it is wise to provoke them, however. Perhaps if we present them with gifts and offers of welcome, they will agree to speak peaceably on our points of difference."

Alain gave Herringdale a quick, skeptical look, but gave the King a courteous bow. "It is certainly worth a try, your Highness."

"I shall convey the gifts to them," Herringdale offered.

"Very well," said Arthur. "You should depart as soon as you are able. I will have the treasures assembled and ready for you at the North Gate."

With a bow, Herringdale departed. Before returning to his flat, he ascended one of the great towers of La Tor Gigantic, which afforded a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside. There, along a ridgeline about a half-mile north of the city, stretched the great army of the Northern Alliance. Smoke from hundreds of campfires curled up into the early morning air from amongst scores of tents. At a rough guess, Herringdale estimated that Lot's alliance comprised perhaps 3,000 knights and perhaps twice as many footmen and camp followers.

Herringdale hurried back to his flat and got into his armor with Baldrick's assistance. With a hurried farewell to his wife and daughters, he made for the north gate, mounted upon his black charger, in full and impressive panoply of war. At the gate, as promised, were six sumpters, each laden with iron chests bearing gifts for the northern kings. King Alain and Sir Cynrain were waiting at the gate, and they bade Herringdale good luck as he rode out of the gate, the pack horses in tow.

Slowly, Herringdale made his way across the great plain separating Carlion from the enemy camp. He could sense many eyes atop the city walls watching him depart, and feel many more eyes among the camp tents watching him approach. About 200 yards from the perimeter, he was intercepted by a squadron of a dozen mounted sergeants and several knights of Malahaut. After announcing the purpose of his mission, he was quickly conveyed through the camp to a massive pavilion tent.

Within, the tent was carpeted with richly woven rugs and lit by lamps burning perfumed oil. King Lot, huge and bald, was the center of attention, but here too were the other northern lords. Herringdale recognized King Uriens of Gorre, husband to Igraine's daughter Morgan, and here too was the Centurion King of Malahaut and the King of Garloth. Also present were the kings of the barbarous lands of the Picts and the Irish, clad in leathers and adorned with gold torcs about their necks, their hair long and braided, their skin covered in blue warpaint describing strange, abstract patterns.

"My lords," said Herringdale, thrusting his chest out as the various treasures were laid before the kings, who looked on with expressions ranging from bemusement to sneering hostility, "I have come before you as an emissary of the High King, Arthur. He sends you these gifts as a sign of his good faith and of his desire to speak with you, that our differences may be resolved peacefully and bloodshed avoided."

There was silence. Then King Lot strode forward, looking down at one of the iron chests that had been laid before him. With the toe of his boot, he kicked the lid open, revealing a rich pile of coins, gems, and jewelry. He sneered and kicked the chest over, spilling its contents across the thick rug that covered the ground.

"You can tell that so-called 'High King' of yours that we have no joy to receive gifts from a beardless boy that is come of low blood."

To emphasize the point, Lot spat upon the treasure pile.

Herringdale gave a curt bow and, with a flourish of his surcoat, marched from the tent. Without a backwards glance, he mounted his charger and departed from the camp. A quarter-hour later, he was in the hall of La Tor Gigantic, reporting what had happened to Arthur and the assembled noblemen. Arthur listened, his brow furrowed with concern. When Herringdale finished recounting the details of his mission, Arthur remained silent for some time.

"Very well," he said at last. "We are in a position of strength, are we not? The city should be sealed and preparations should be made to withstand a siege."

The High King's orders were carried out immediately, but as they left the hall Alain and Herringdale exchanged another dark look. Could it be that the new king was frightened of Lot's army?

Watches were set along the walls, and Herringdale was designated Watch Captain for certain times during the week. His first such shift came during the evening of the second day of the siege, and as he looked out over the countryside from Carlion's walls he could see every outlying village and hamlet in flames. The rebels were torching fields too; the land was being laid waste.

The next day, Arthur summoned a council of war. This time, Merlin the Magician was present, albeit lurking in the shadows of a colonnade, quietly observing.

"The time has come for action," Arthur announced to the assembled knights and nobility. "Even if they do not take this city, Lot and his allies will destroy Escavalon through their pillaging before they depart, and that cannot be allowed. Send word forth to your commands - we fight!"

Several of the lords, Alain included, gave brief cheers of approval, and all of the assembly left chatting excitedly. The odds against the forces loyal to Arthur seemed long, but it was better to fight and die in the cause than rot away behind city walls and watch as the countryside was laid to waste. Such were the actions of bygone times; the new age demanded bold action!

Two hours later, Herringdale found himself at the head of the assembled knights of Salisbury. His company was part of the High King's own division (Earl Robert was fighting as part of Arthur's personal guard), formed up on the right of the larger army in the place of honor. Across the plain, now dotted with gray, ash-blown ruins of fields and villages, the rebel army had assembled. Herringdale could see that it was easily twice the size of Arthur's. A veritable wall of steel in the form of row upon serried row of knights faced him across the empty plain. Yet in that moment when cold panic began to grip him, Herringdale was heartened by the sight of several companies of knights riding forth from the enemy lines, deserting the rebels at the last moment to throw their lot in with the Boy King. As the new units joined Arthur's ranks, a great trumpet blast signaled the charge, and Herringdale spurred Smuggy IV forward. The Battle of Carlion had begun.

[Like with the feast, this battle was our first real chance to try out new house rules, in this case my modified battle system. I'm happy to report that it worked out perfectly for our needs; the action flowed smoothly, battle rounds passed quickly, and I had enough info coming off the tables to give me fodder for narration of the flow of battle.]

For Herringdale, there was an immediately noticeable difference in this battle compared to most of the ones he had fought in his lifetime. Rather than charging a shield wall of howling Saxon infantry, he found himself galloping towards a counter-charging unit of fellow knights. The two masses of cavalry met with a tremendous, deafening crash. Herringdale took a lance square on his shield, but the shaft shattered and although he was rocked sideways by the impact he kept his seat.

Over the next two hours, he was stuck in amongst ebbing and flowing tides of knights, friendly and hostile alike. As company commander, he spent as much time exhorting his men and leading from the front as he did actually crossing swords with the enemy. Finally, a hole opened up in the enemy lines as the rebel knights retired from the field. Herringdale raised his sword and led a charge forward into a wall of oval shields, all bearing the same crest. As he closed with the block of infantry, a volley of javelins came sailing from behind the shield wall. Too late, Herringdale realized he was charging a unit of disciplined Roman infantry from the City of Legions!

Herringdale emerged unscathed from the volley, but many of his compatriots went down, javelins sticking from their chests or the flanks of their horses. The remainder of the Salisbury company crashed into the Roman infantry and began the grim business of slaughter. Yet, though they fought valiantly, the knights found themselves pushed gradually back by the disciplined infantry. Herringdale ordered a withdrawal, and as they disengaged from the Romans, the Salisbury company was pursued by a unit of well-drilled mounted sergeantry. Forming an ad hoc rearguard with Sir Jaradan, Sir Leo, and Sir Lycus, Herringdale was able to turn the harrying cavalry away, personally beheading the company's captain. As he rejoined his company, he took stock of the battle.

His was hardly the only unit that had been pushed back. Lot's army, by dint of sheer weight of numbers, was gradually forcing Arthur's valiant troops back towards the walls of Carlion. At that point, Herringdale caught sight of Arthur's banner - and of the banner of King Lot himself, closing in! Herringdale signaled his unit.

"We must protect the King!"

With a great cheer, the Salisbury company surged forward, cutting through a unit of young knights who fell like wheat under the scythe of Herringdale and his battle-hardened troops. Unfortunately, elsewhere on the battlefield it was Arthur's troops that were taking the brunt of punishment. Casualties were approaching 80 percent, and huge gaps were opening in the lines of the loyalists. Victory was within Lot's grasp, and as Herringdale caught sight of Arthur he found the Boy King frozen in a moment of indecision, Excalibur still sheathed at his side.

Herringdale rode up alongside the King. "Excalibur, your highness!" he bellowed, startling Arthur out of his daze. Looking down, almost as if he'd forgotten the blade at his side, Arthur grasped the hilt of his sword and drew it forth, spurring his horse into battle at the same time.

As soon as the blade was raised on high it emitted a pulse of light as white and searing as a lightning bolt. Herringdale saw the knights of Lot's unit throw their hands up to shield their faces, stricken by the sudden glow, but as for himself and those who fought in the name of the High King, only a great surge of triumph was felt. In that moment, Herringdale knew that he would lay down his life for this young king [generating a Loyalty: Arthur passion in the process].

Inspired, Arthur's bedraggled troops surged forward. Herringdale led his own company into a unit of knights fighting on foot and there was much bloodshed over the ensuing hour. Yet, as the armored swordsmen were finally put to flight, Herringdale could see a fresh unit of knights bearing the arms of Malahaut forming up to charge his weary men. Was there to be no respite, no relief from the merciless punishment?

Even as he was forming up his ranks to receive the charge of the Malahaut knights, Herringdale heard a great cry rise up from the walls of Carlion, not 50 yards behind him. Turning, he saw the massive city gates had been flung wide and - as unbelievable as it seemed - a great stream seemingly comprised of every able-bodied citizen of the city was issuing forth. The men wielded clubs, fire hooks, thresher's flails, chains, torches, and spears, and they poured like an unstoppable river into the stunned ranks of the rebel army as Herringdale watched, his mouth agape.

Seizing the moment, he ordered his own company to charge the Malahaut knights in turn. Caught off-guard, the knights were quickly put to flight and the Salisbury company rode them down mercilessly. Caught on the flank by the citizens of Carlion, Lot's army began to withdraw from the field. Although many of the unarmored peasants had perished in the desperate fighting, they had turned the tide of battle.

Arthur's army was far too depleted and exhausted to consider pursuit of the rebels. As Lot withdrew, so too did Arthur to within the protection of the city walls. Although he had come through unscathed, Herringdale was by far the exception. Even among his own company, there were more wounded men than healthy, and overall hardly ten percent of Arthur's army had escaped the battle without being killed, injured, or captured.

Every available bed in Carlion was taken up by the wounded. Lady Jenna, who was skilled in the healing arts, and Herringdale's daughters were among the many ladies and squires who soon found themselves tending to scores of ailing and wounded knights. Herringdale himself, a gifted healer like his father before him, moved amongst the sick beds, tending wounds and lifting spirits by his mere presence. Occasionally he and his wife would catch sight of each other in the same colonnade-cum-hospital and exchange a few words, but both were working 16 to 20 hour days, so consumed were they with the task at hand.

It was midnight, three days after the battle, when Herringdale found Lady Jenna alone, gently mopping the brow of an aged knight who was sleeping fitfully on a cot that had been set up in a sheltered portico. Even by the light of the tallow candle at the knight's bedside, Herringdale could see that his wife was looking completely exhausted.

"Perhaps you should get some rest," he suggested to her gently.

Jenna heaved a great sigh, her shoulders slumping. "Maybe you're right," she said, starting to rise. Yet scarcely had she gotten to her feet when she collapsed into Herringdale's arms. His mouth dry with quiet panic, Herringdale swept her up and carried her several blocks back to their rented flat, where he laid her in bed and tended to her the remainder of the evening. Jenna's skin was waxen and her breathing shallow, yet she slept deeply and peacefully, giving Herringdale some cause for hope.

As the first rays of dawn came in through the eastern window, Jenna's eyes fluttered open. Immediately Herringdale could see a light had returned to them that had not been there the night before. She smiled.

"I'm leaving strict orders with Melerie to keep an eye on you. Do not leave this bed until you are back in the full bloom of health, do you understand?" Jenna nodded and kissed Herringdale's hand in thanks, then drifted back to sleep. Herringdale left the flat later that morning, making for La Tor Gigantic. Arthur had called another council to discuss the next step in the war against the rebel army.

In the castle's hall, the High King's voice echoed through the vaulted expanse.

"The army of the six kings was thrown back from these very walls by our valiant efforts, yet it was not broken. Even now, the armies have scattered to the four corners of Logres and are causing much mischief through their looting and pillaging.

"Yet we are in no condition to pursue the army and offer battle. Already outnumbered before the battle, many more of our men are in no shape to continue the fight. I have called you all here to seek for suggestions. What is there to do? How are we to rid our kingdom of these rebels and bring their submission through force, since they will not offer it willingly?"

An uncomfortable silence settled on the hall. Herringdale hadn't the faintest idea of what he could offer beyond what he'd already brought. Then a voice rang out.

"Highness, you could send to the lands of Ganis and Brittany and seek for the aid of Kings Ban and Bors, for they are renowned for their defense of just causes and their knights are among the mightiest in the world!"

Several other knights voiced their approval of this plan and Arthur nodded thoughtfully as well.

"Very well," he said. "I shall dispatch two emissaries, one to each of the kings." His eyes scanned the crowd. "Sir Brastias, you shall go to King Bors, and....Sir Herringdale, you shall go to King Ban. If you win promise of help, return with the armies as soon as you may, for I feel that King Lot will not wait long to reassemble his forces and march against us again. Duke Ulfius, make for the halls of King Aelle and see if we can count on help from the Saxons in our war against the northerners."

"Your highness," Herringdale and Brastias intoned with solemn bows. The pair then swept from the hall with many murmured wishes of Godspeed and gramercy to speed them on their way. Herringdale returned to his flat to prepare to leave. As he arrived, he met an old wise woman descending the stairs.

"Your daughter sent for me," the crone told Herringdale. "Your wife will be fine," she said, her one good eye twinkling mysteriously.

Herringdale rushed into the bed chamber to find Jenna fast asleep. He sat at her bedside for the remainder of the day, watching her. At dusk, she awoke as Melerie brought in a bowl of soup for her supper.

"The wise woman who came and saw to you..." said Herringdale, unable to contain his curiosity.

"I am with child," said Jenna, beaming.

Herringdale clasped Jenna's hand between his own and laughed. Two hours later, Herringdale was aboard a square-sailed tradeship sailing out on the star-dappled Severn Channel for the wider waters of the Celtic Sea and the unknown shores of Ganis far beyond....

Next up: Bors, Ban, and Bedegraine!
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