We had left off with Herringdale and a host of other worthies wintering over at Carlion. As the winter wore on, the cold and dark nights were whiled away with long, serious discussions, instigated and led by Arthur, on the nature of knighthood. What made a man a knight as opposed to a simple armored thug riding a horse? How were knights differentiated from the common stock? Did knights share a certain commonality of beliefs that united them?
By the end of the winter, a common understanding of the bond connecting knights had been reached. Arthur summed it up in a speech given at the Candlemass feast:
“We are of many lands, but the Brotherhood of Knighthood unites us all. We all, even though hailing from different kingdoms and speaking different tongues, are leaders of men, acknowledged superior to those who are beneath us. We have the same rights in our own lands, and we have more in common with each other than with the commoners we lead.
“The Order of Knighthood is a sacred institution. After Adam was driven from the Garden of Eden, men fell into war among themselves. As a result, the Order of Knighthood was instituted by the wise to lead and protect mankind from itself and from outside enemies alike. Since then, fathers have enjoined their sons to the task, and the institution has been blessed by time.”
The assembled knights all gave a hearty cheer and rose to applaud their king. Sir Brastias, who was standing near Herringdale, leaned in as he was clapping, saying, "That bo - er, king of ours is really something, isn't he? Such ideas! They just may work, too."
They had found common ground, too, in the backroom maneuvering that had gone on over the winter when Arthur wasn't too busy mooning over his thoughts on knighthood. The king was being assailed from all quarters by his entourage of all-stars, each of whom was only too happy to present his opinions on how the next year should be spent. King Alain, for example, thought the northern rebels should be pressed mercilessly. Word had come that Lot had retired from last year's campaign only to find himself beset by fresh raids from the Saxon kingdoms in the north.
"Let us send aid to the Saxons there and let our two enemies destroy each other!" said the fiery king, his eyes agleam.
Duke Ulfius, on the other hand, led a contingent of southern lords such as Sir Hervis de Revels who advocated for turning and marching against the Saxon kingdoms in the south, who had been caught off-guard by Arthur's coronation and were now once again squabbling amongst themselves.
Sir Brastias, representing a third camp that included Sir Herringdale, counseled that, after the many battles of the preceding year, what was required was rest and rebuilding.
"Many old knights were killed in the fighting last year, and many squires won their spurs. The new knights need time to train and become comfortable in their new roles, and the veterans are exhausted and strapped."
This point of common agreement had been another bridge between Herringdale and Brastias, and they were only too pleased when it appeared that Arthur was going to side with their argument. Of course, it didn't hurt that Merlin also counseled the same; despite the stock he put into the opinions of the paragons of knighthood such as Sir Brastias, Duke Ulfius, or Sir Herringdale, Arthur seemed to, in the end, follow whatever advice Merlin was giving him.
The streets of Carlion were now free of snow and ice, but Herringdale remained; his wife, Lady Jenna, was due to give birth any day, and he did not want to travel until after the babies had arrived. Meanwhile, he had received a rude shock over the winter when he discovered that his daughter Melerie was also with child! She refused to say who the father was, and Herringdale banished her from the rented flat until she gave birth. King Alain, more understanding of premarital relations, took her in at the palace, promising Herringdale that Melerie's condition would be a subject of the utmost discretion and remain hidden from public view.
Finally, as the first buds of spring were appearing on the trees, Jenna gave birth. As Herringdale had predicted, it was again twins. Clearly his family was favored under the sign of Gemini! Much to Herringdale's dismay, however, the arrival was of a pair of twin girls. He did not let Jenna see his disappointment, however, and batted away her attempts to apologize for not providing a male heir.
"There's always next year," he muttered as he left Jenna's bed chamber.
[Not to mention Melerie's child, which is fated to be a son. The GPC presents us with three bastard heirs to Arthur's throne in order to mix things up a bit. All are born around 510-511. Mordred is, of course, the known and expected bastard, but Arthur also has relations with a lady in Bedegraine [Earl Sanam's daughter] and a lady in Carlion. With the events of last year playing out the way they did, and Melerie's childbirth roll coming up positive, it was a no-brainer to make Melerie the Carlion mother of Arthur's third bastard son, who will grow up to be known as Sir Loholt. Little does Herringdale know that he now has not only a male heir, but a grandson by the High King! We'll see how events play out over the next 20 years, but I would love to see Des play Loholt, and she's enthusiastic about the prospect as well.]
Herringdale soon after left Carlion and hurried for Du Plain to make things ready for the arrival of his wife and daughters. His adoring subjects spontaneously volunteered to help in any way they could (thanks to a winter events roll) and Herringdale commissioned a massive, lovely bed of intricately hand-carved mahogany and cherry. By the time his carpenters and woodsmiths were done with the carving and assembly, and his jewelers had finished laying in gold and gems, the bed was the marvel of the whole county.
It proved to be another tough winter for Herringdale's holdings, but fortunately the ransom gained from the two Norgales knights he'd captured the year before made up the shortfall. And still his mother was missing; his brother and cousin had been unable to turn up hide or hair of her. As spring set in, Herringdale busied himself with the duties of a feudal lord and county Marshall. Spring turned to summer before Herringdale received an unexpected visitor to his hall. Sir Hervis de Revels had come calling to recruit Herringdale for some extra-curricular raiding.
"The king is repairing the walls of St. Albans and has called up most of the feudal levy to help in that effort," Sir Hervis informed Herringdale over a supper of roasted capon. "That's all well and good, says I, but I for one crave action! A good old fashioned Saxon hunt, that's what we need!"
He laughed boisterously and drained his goblet. As Lady Jenna refilled it, Herringdale stroked his stubbled chin in thought. Taking some Saxon heads...now there was an idea! Hervis obviously noticed that he'd piqued the Marshall's interest.
"I have come to your court, sir, for you are not only one of the most renowned knights in the land but also a legendary foe of the Saxon menace. I intend to raise a small force of desperate cut-throats and unleash them on the Saxon lands. Will you ride with me?"
Two years ago Herringdale would have unhesitatingly volunteered. But now he paused, deep in thought. Arthur's talk of the bonds and responsiblities of knighthood had made sense to him. It was as if the High King was summarizing the very qualities that Herringdale had long cherished: diligence, generosity, justice, modesty, and valor. Herringdale's growing sense of loyalty to the High King was clashing with his hatred for the Saxon invaders - had not the king deemed this a year of peace and recovery? Why stir up the Saxon hornet's nest now?
[Des rolled a contest of her Loyalty (Arthur) versus her Hate (Saxons). Suprisingly, Loyalty won out.]
"I am sorry that I cannot ride with you this year, Sir Hervis," said Herringdale. "But I support your zeal. Allow me to send you on your way with silver from my treasury to help fund your expedition."
Sir Hervis, though obviously disappointed, agreed and the next day departed with two chests full of Roman silver.
The remainder of the summer passed without further incident. Sir Herringdale received word from King Alain that Melerie had given birth to a son in Carlion and had named him Loholt. In August, Herringdale received Earl Robert and his court as they made their progress around Salisbury. The night of his arrival, Robert informed Herringdale that his service would consist of riding with the Earl to Silchester to visit King Arthur, who was holding court there this year.
"They say King Lot has sent his wife, Margawse, to treat with the King and sound out the possibility of a peace treaty. I don't trust that witch - they say she can read. Can you imagine?"
And so, as August turned to September, Herringdale bid his wife farewell and set off for Silchester with Earl Robert and his massive retinue (including his mother the Countess, eight additional knights, twelve squires, five maids-in-waiting, eight pages, two messengers, a herald, two grooms, a cook and two assistant cooks, a clerk, a priest, a dog boy, a hawk keeper, and other miscellaneous varlets). Trundling along to the seat of Duke Ulfius, the progress passed through Levcomagus, still without a lord even three years after the presumed death of Sir Blaines (and Herringdale's son) at the old site of Du Plain castle.
Finally arriving at Silchester, Herringdale found the court crammed with nobles and dignitaries from across Logres and beyond. Holding center court was the Queen of Lothian herself, flanked by her three young sons, all recently knighted. Margawse, some years older than when last Herringdale had seen her, looked as shrewd and calculating as ever. Her sons, all still just lads, were gazing about the grand old hall and its many colorful occupants in obvious wonder.
"Your lands are so much different from where I grew up!" Gawaine exclaimed to Herringdale.
"Well, if you'd like to see more of them you're always welcome in my hall at Du Plain castle," Herringdale said graciously. Gawaine bit his lip, clearly tempted by the offer.
"I'd love to linger, but I have sworn to protect my mother on this journey," said Gawaine, obviously torn.
"Then that is what you should do!" said Herringdale. "Tell you what: return next year on your own and stay with me at Du Plain as my guest for as long as you like."
Gawaine smiled. Herringdale smiled back - and was suddenly hit with a pea between the eyes.
"Sorry," Agravaine drawled, smirking, from his seat down the table, a butter knife still held in his hands, "I was aiming for my brother."
The following day was to be a day of hawking along the woods and marshes near Silchester. Herringdale, who had brought his prize peregrine, was quite looking forward to a day of fresh air and pleasant conversation. He was pleased to see Arthur and Margawse getting along so well, and felt he had done his part for international diplomacy with his invitation to the queen's son to come visit.
It so happened that Herringdale was part of the king's own hawking party, and rode out with Arthur, Margawse, Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris, Ulfius, Brastias, Earl Robert, and Countess Ellen early the next morning. Unfortunately for Herringdale, his falcon wasn't finding much prey and most of the morning passed in frustration and missed opportunities.
As the party neared an expanse of woods that Ulfius maintained for hunting, however, Herringdale thought he was finally going to land some game. A flock of ravens had taken wing over the woods, and Herringdale loosed his peregrine. As his hawk soared up over the forest, it happened quite literally in a flash - with a sudden burst of white light, like a lightning bolt without the thunder, the falcon disappeared from before the astonished eyes of the hunting party!
"That flash came from within the woods or I am much mistaken!" Arthur exclaimed as several squires and Sir Gaheris reflexively genuflected. "The finest charger from my stables to whoever returns Sir Herringdale's falcon!"
There was a sudden rush as most of the knights and squires in the party dashed forward into the woods.
"You are too generous, sire," said Herringdale with a bow from his saddle. "By your leave I shall go search for the bird myself as well."
"Certainly," said Arthur. "May God aid you and protect you in your quest."
With Baldrick in tow, Herringdale rode forth into the woods. As a well-maintained hunting preserve, the forest proved easy going even on horseback. Periodically Herringdale caught the sound of another searcher crashing through the woods off in the distance, but he was soon lost amongst the leaves, far from any other knights. It was at that point that a swallow alighted upon a branch ahead of him. Herringdale reigned his horse back in surprise when the swallow opened its beak as if to sing and instead began talking:
Greetings to you good Sir Knight.
Are you looking for a bird that was lost in flight?
When deeper in the woods you find yourself
Take the far right path, to find the elf
Or bear left for a fight that's a chore
But, to find the bird you are looking for
Take the middle path, go straight and true
Look for the old man, dressed in blue.
But beware of honeyed words and wiles
Lies lurk behind withered old smiles.
Harm not the forest, be it squirrel, bear, or tree,
Or the curse will be far, far greater for thee.
"I--I thank you," said Herringdale, somewhat taken aback. The swallow took wing with a twittering song and Herringdale rode on. Presently, he entered a glade. On the other side of the clearing he could see three trails leading deeper into the woods, just as the bird had said. He took the middle path as instructed.
After a short while riding along the track, Herringdale came upon a quaint, thatched cottage of the sort inhabited by woodsmen and cotters. A gentle whisp of woodsmoke curled up from a hole in the roof and an old willow tree hung its branches over a duck pond beside the house. Herringdale dismounted and left Baldrick behind with the horses, cautiously approaching the cottage.
"Hello?" he called as he approached the open door.
"Eh? Come in! Come in!" croaked a voice from within.
Herringdale stepped into the cottage. Inside he found a nicely furnished dwelling occupied by a decrepit old man dressed in homespun garments of varying shades of blue. A small bed occupied a corner of the room, and perched on the headboard was Herringdale's falcon!
"My bird!" Herringdale exclaimed.
"Ah yes, a fine specimen," said the man. "It flew in here not long ago. It's yours, you say? Well you are free to take it. But please, join me in a cup of tea first."
The man had set out two small clay mugs and was filling them both with hot water from an iron kettle off the fire.
"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not," said Herringdale, trying to remain polite. "I'll just take my bird and be going."
"I'm sorry you won't have tea with a lonely old man. Would you at least do me a favor then? That old willow outside is tearing up my floor with its roots. Take this axe and cut it down - I'm too old and feeble for such a rigorous task." The old man indicated a rusted old woodsman's axe propped near the door. Herringdale hesitated, looking at his bird. Then he turned away.
"I have taken a vow not to harm anything in this forest, even the trees. If that is the condition of getting my falcon back, then I'm afraid you'll just have to keep him."
With a heavy heart, Herringdale stepped outside into the sunlight. He heard a fluttering of wings and looked back: his peregrine was perched in the cottage window now, giving him an imploring look. Herringdale shook his head and walked away.
At that point two things happened simultaneously. First, a stream of curses and oaths issued from within the cottage. Second, a motion near the pond caught Herringdale's eye; it looked like the willow tree was shrinking and withering, curling up on itself. As Herringdale watched, astounded, the tree shrank down to the size of a person. Indeed, it now looked exactly like a person, an old woman dressed in tattered fabrics, curled up in a ball on the water's edge. Herringdale walked over, extending a hand that he quickly withdrew in frank amazement. It was none other than his own mother, and she was slowly getting to her feet, smiling at him!
"My son, I knew you would come for me!" she exclaimed, rushing to embrace him. Herringdale took her in a hug, still unable to believe what was happening. As the two broke apart, both crying for joy, his mother's eyes darted back to the cottage. Herringdale turned to look.
Standing in the door was not an old, withered man but Sir Blaines of Levcomagus! He was wearing armor and a blue tunic. Yet he was barely recognizable; his face had been hideously burned. From the cheeks down to below the neckline of his armor was hideously scarred flesh, red and livid. Blaines leered liplessly at Herringdale and his mother.
"Too clever for me by far yet again, Sir Herringdale," said Blaines. "You wouldn't drink my withering potion nor could I trick you into killing your sainted mother."
"Sir Blaines!" Herringdale exclaimed. "I thought you were dead!"
"I nearly was," said Blaines. "Left for dead by the Saxon dogs. But my hatred kept me alive, fueled me, brought me back to my home in the dead of night where I found an ally who helped me hatch a plan for vengeance upon all my enemies, all of those who brought me to this lowly state. You are just the first part of my plan for exquisite vengeance. After I finish with you, I shall kill Roderick's upstart son and that old fool Ulfius, those who deserted me and left me for dead every bit as much as the Saxons!"
Blaines was fairly shouting at this point, spit flying from his twisted mouth as he raved. Although he felt more pity than hatred for the old steward, Herringdale knew he must put him down as one would a mad dog.
"I will gladly face you in combat," said Herringdale, "at a time and place of your choosing."
"How about now, then?" said Blaines. Confused, Herringdale looked over to see Baldrick advancing with his suit of armor at the ready, despite the fact that he hadn't set out from Silchester with it. Clearly there was still some enchantment at work in this vale.
Herringdale gave ground, trying his best to formulate a plan on how to deal with such a menace - he'd never faced anyone armed in such a way. The two knights made a circuit of the glade before Herringdale charged in, ducking low to avoid Blaines's swing. Herringdale knew his best chance was to get in close, where the warflail would be at a clumsy disadvantage.
Both men grunted as they exchanged blows. [Both Herringdale and Blaines had invoked passions - Love (Family) and Hate (Herringdale) respectively - and so both scored Criticals this round. By the book, that's a tie and neither side takes damage. I have a house rule that a tied Crit actually does 1d3 damage to both parties, ignoring all armor (including Armor of Honor). This is mainly in place for the times when uber-powerful knights face off; the odds are that they'll constantly both be rolling Crits, and the 1d3 damage represents the forces of attrition gradually wearing them down over the course of the epic, day-long battle that's certain to commence.]
The combatants temporarily broke apart. With a bellow of rage, Blaines charged forward. Herringdale, his hand steady and his heart calm, stepped aside, bringing his sword up and down again in a wide arc as he did so. Blaines went in two directions; his head went flying forward across the glade while the rest of his body collapsed in a heap at Herringdale's feet. Herringdale looked to his mother, who had watched the combat tight-lipped and pale.
"Shall we?" he asked, extending a hand.
As Herringdale guided the horse his mother sat upon, he asked her about her disappearance. She explained how one night, as she sat in her room at Amesbury Abbey in prayer, a thick mist had rolled in through her open window. The mist had filled the room and, as she rose to cry out, she had swooned. She had awoken in what she later learned was a tower chamber in Levcomagus Castle. Sir Blaines had kept her prisoner there for over a year before appearing before her. A hooded figure had accompanied him, and again she had swooned. When she next awoke, she was lying by the side of the pond, her son looking down at her in shock and amazement.
And so Herringdale emerged from the Silchester woods, his mother in tow, fully armed. Needless to say, this provoked a barrage of questions from Arthur and the other members of the party (save Margawse, who simply gave Herringdale a penetrating look), and as they made their way back to Silchester, Herringdale told his rousing tale.
Two weeks later Queen Margawse and her entourage departed. If she and Arthur had reached any sort of agreement, it was not generally known, but both parties looked well pleased with themselves at the farewell. Two days later, Earl Robert took his leave of Arthur and returned to Salisbury. Herringdale was soon back at Du Plain, reunited with his wife and baby daughters.
Things seemed nice and quiet as winter set in when Herringdale received another unexpected visitor to his halls. It was not Sir Hervis this time but a much stranger knight. Bearded and somewhat unkempt, he presented himself before Herringdale wearing brown chainmail - not rusted, just...brown. Somehow. Herringdale also noted the knight's shield; it did not bear a traditional coat of arms but rather featured an oak branch nailed to the face. The knight did not give his name but rather presented himself as "The Brown Knight of the Wilds." Herringdale welcomed him to his hall nonetheless.
"I shall only be staying the evening," said the Brown Knight. "I am bound for Arthur's court at Silchester. Word has spread of his ideas about honor and brotherhood, and I am going there to see if such things are merely spoken about or actually acted upon."
Herringdale smiled. "In my experience, it has been the latter so far. I hope that you find the same to be the case."
The next morning the Brown Knight departed as the year's first flakes of snow began to fall from a leaden sky. Jenna and Herringdale watched him ride away from Du Plain's tower keep.
"What a strange person," Jenna mused.
"I have a feeling he's just the first," Herringdale said with a sigh. The world was changing and he was beginning to wonder if he'd be able to keep up...
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