Friday, September 17, 2010

[Solo GPC] 512: Three Feasts

This year was one of those years, like 492, in which events vital to the mythical story arc played out before Herringdale's astonished eyes. It wasn't quite as rail-roady as the year of high treason though, and there were even opportunities for Herringdale to directly participate in some of the ongoing events. Certainly, the hall of Du Plain castle will now have a part in the legend...and they're still trying to get the blood stains off the floor of the hall...

As winter waned, Sir Herringdale received a summons from Earl Robert in Sarum. The cold months had passed uneventfully for the most part. Jenna, still nursing the twins, had not produced a child this year, but word had come from Carlion that King Alain and Queen Heledd had welcomed a son and heir to the throne of Escavalon. There was also news from Silchester: a party of Roman dignitaries had visited Arthur's court and demanded that the new High King submit to Rome's authority and reaffirm Britain's place as part of the Roman Empire. Rumor had it that the young king had sent the dignitaries packing, sending them away with a "tribute" of bared swords and spears!

As a late February snow fell on Du Plain, Herringdale rode for Sarum to answer the call of his lord. In that august castle's chilly halls, Herringdale met with the Earl.

"The annual piligrimage to St. Albans is under way across much of the country, and Queen Igraine has expressed a desire to go this year."

Robert did not have to tell Herringdale that Igraine was in residence at Amesbury Abbey, having given herself over to the Lord after the tragic death of King Uther over a quarter-century ago.

"She will need an escort appropriate to her station," said Robert, fixing Herringdale with a meaningful look.

"Very well, my lord," said Herringdale. He was not pleased. The memories of the treason accusation and Igraine's advocacy for his death still lingered.

"Do this for me and I shall consider your service for the year to be fulfilled," said Robert. That sweetened the deal a bit, and the next day Herringdale was on the road for Amesbury.

He had seen Igraine once since the treason trial. He had rescued her and her daughter Morgan from marauding Saxons a decade earlier. He had served as an escort to the Queen then as well when she and Morgan had ridden north to Gorre for the latter's wedding. But that had been as part of a larger entourage, and he had brought his family with him. There had been plenty of distractions. The prospect of just him and the old Queen riding together for several days galled him.

Nevertheless, there was duty to be done. Arriving at Amesbury at midday, he found preparations were well under way for the Queen's pilgrimage. The snow had stopped and the sun was shining down, trying its best to get spring under way. After a night spent at the abbey, Herringdale was again on the road, escorting the Queen, dressed in a nun's habit, and her handmaidens as they rode behind him in a covered carriage.

The journey turned out to be not nearly as awkward as Herringdale had feared. Most of the day Igraine - still beautiful despite her advancing years - kept to herself in her carriage, and in the evenings, staying in manors along the road as guests of local knights who were delighted to find themselves hosts to a legendary knight and the former queen of the land, time was quickly passed with tale-telling and musical entertainment.

In fact, the trickiest part of the journey came as Herringdale and his group, making their way along the Ridgeway Road through the Lambourne Downs, began to run afoul of the increasingly thick traffic of pilgrims upon the road. Within a day's travel of St. Albans, the situation had become nearly untenable. Pilgrims thronged the road, packed shoulder to shoulder. Among the unwashed masses, floating like ships on a stormy ocean, moved mounted men, carts, carriages, and pack mules. Cursing, Herringdale did his best to forge a trail through the press of pilgrims, but progress was extremely slow.

In desperation, he led Igraine's party off the main road, up a side path that led towards the nearby prominence of Kingsbury Castle. A modest castle, it was nevertheless the beneficiary of some of Arthur's latest defensive improvements to the region and now boasted a nearly-completed stout stone tower keep, the cutting edge of military defensive technology.

To his great vexation, Herringdale found the bailey of Kingsbury nearly as crowded as the pilgrim road. It was just his luck: none other than King Arthur himself was in residence here! Apparently the king had decided to make the pilgrimage this year as well, which was perhaps explanation in part for why so many commoners were flocking to St. Albans too - to be healed by the king at a holy pilgrimage site!

As former Queen of Logres, Igraine was welcomed warmly by the lord of the castle and by King Arthur, who gave her a seat of honor at his side. As her protector, Herringdale was seated on the Queen's other side. The remainder of the guests at the high table that evening comprised Arthur's entourage, which included Arthur's foster family of Sir Ector and Sir Kay as well as Duke Ulfius of Silchester, who had hosted Arthur's court over the winter. As he took his seat, Herringdale also noticed Merlin lurking about, seated in a window niche and looking thoughtful. Long suspicious of the old mage, Herringdale chose not to engage him in conversation.

There was someone else at the table, Herringdale noticed, who had a rather sour and suspicious look on his face: Duke Ulfius. He kept shooting poisoned glances in Herringdale's direction, which came as something of a surprise. He and Ulfius had never exactly been on friendly terms, but then again they'd never had reason to clash either. Then Herringdale realized that Ulfius was not looking at him, but rather Igraine!

This startling realization was sidetracked somewhat by Sir Kay, who was making a rather loud show of congratulating Arthur on how he handled the "stupid Romans" - "It's the last we'll see of them!" Kay predicted confidently.

"And what of that Sir Hervis de Revels?" asked a lady of the court. "His raid against the Saxons was so bold - and well-executed too! He is a fine example to prove that a knight does not have to be a great landholder to shine famously among us."

"A fine point," said Arthur. "Knighthood is marvelous, but chivalry is a knight’s duty. Chivalry. Just as knights have been set above the normal run of mankind, so are the chivalrous set above other knights. What say you to this, Duke Ulfius?"

By this point, Ulfius was red in the face from suppressed rage. Rather than answering Arthur directly, he jumped to his feet. Herringdale subtly shifted in his seat, casually moving his right hand to the hilt of his dagger.

"Forgive me, your majesty. I cannot sit idly by and speak of such high ideals when a traitorous Jezebel sits by your side. Her mere presence here is an insult to your court!"

Pandemonium erupted at Ulfius's words. Herringdale's eyes flicked to Igraine, who seemed strangely unperturbed, and to Arthur, who seemed extremely anxious yet tightly controlled. The rest of the hall, however, was a cacophony of shouts and yells, some knights defending the Queen's honor, others loudly agreeing with Ulfius, still others chastising Ulfius for violating the rules of hospitality.

Herringdale kept his cool and maintained his position between Ulfius and Igraine, hand still near to his dagger. But then Igraine rose as if to speak. Immediately the hall went silent as her voice rang out, calm and steady.

"The night my husband was killed, I was visited by a man in his guise. He took me to bed, and nine months later I bore a child. The child was taken from me by Merlin, and I do not know where he went."

At this point Merlin hopped spryly down from the window niche, as if waiting for his cue.

"My lady, the man who came to you that night was Uther. And your son sits at your side," he said, indicating Arthur.

Without taking his eyes off Igraine, Arthur addressed his foster father, Sir Ector. "What do you know of this, father?"

"You came to me as a babe, and you were given to me by Merlin," said Ector, his voice choked with emotion. "I was told to raise you in secret."

Slowly, Arthur rose to face Igraine. Then, tears streaming down both their faces, they embraced. The tears turned to sobs and they wept openly as the stunned court looked on. Herringdale was forcibly reminded of his own mother-son reunion the year before. More broadly, the implication of this revelation was immediately apparent to all: Arthur was no longer the bastard boy king, but the Pendragon returned!

His cheeks wet with tears, Arthur joyfully called for a feast to last eight days.

Herringdale applauded with the rest of the court, a smile frozen on his face. Inwardly, he cursed his ill luck. He wanted to be rid of Igraine and return home! Now he was to linger in this cursed castle for over a week longer.

Over the course of the feast Herringdale laid low. His mood only soured more when the Queen asked him to sing a ballad for the court on the fifth night; hardly an able singer in the best of moods, Herringdale delivered a flat, instantly forgettable performance that garnered a polite but all-too-brief round of applause before the 15th course was brought out. Finally, after eight days, the revelries came to a close, much to Herringdale's relief.

With the feast finally complete, Arthur and Igraine moved on towards St. Albans together. At each of the many roadshine shrines and chapels that lined the pilgrimage route they stopped and prayed, side by side. Sir Herringdale rode along in their wake, tired, irritated, and homesick. He could appreciate now why Earl Robert had been so quick to release him from further duties this year - at this rate, he would be giving his full six weeks' service just traveling to St. Albans and back!

At last the massive entourage reached St. Albans itself. The city stood behind stout new walls that had been erected at Arthur's behest the year before, and its citizens, lining the streets and windows, cheering deliriously, welcomed the High King gratefully. The royal party proceded to the city's shrine, where Arthur and Igraine again prayed. Then Arthur welcomed all those who would come to him for his blessing. A great crowd had gathered outside the shrine, and one by one they began to filter in. Herringdale watched them do so from outside the shrine, and he saw many crippled and ill persons enter only to re-emerge shortly thereafter seemingly cured of their ailments.

Finally, as the crowd began to thin, Herringdale ventured inside the chapel. Arthur and Igraine were still there, and they were once again praying. The chapel air seemed thick like honey, and the soporific odor of incense hung heavy. Herringdale kneeled at the altar beside the King and his mother and began to pray. As he did so, he could feel his heart growing lighter, his petty concerns and irritations melting away. Soon it felt as if his heart were encircled with a wreath of white-hot flames. The flames did not burn him, though. Instead he felt warmth and protection encircle him. Then, in his mind's eye, he saw a vision: an angel emerging from a corridor of blinding light. Its beneficent face seemed like that of the long-dead Sir Jordans, Herringdale's one true love. The angel smiled down at Herringdale, as if to say that everything was going to be okay. Silently he began to weep.

[I asked for a Pious roll and Des rolled a Crit. For Herringdale's religious experience, I decided a check in Pious and Religion was in order, as well as a check in each of his Religious traits. A rare moment of transcendence for our otherwise usually Worldly knight.]

Two days later, on the first day of March, Herringdale was again on the road. Still part of King Arthur's retinue, he was riding for Silchester. Queen Igraine had decided to travel with her son to his court, and Herringdale was going to honor his vow to protect her as far as that. From Silchester, he would return home to Du Plain in time to supervise the spring planting. Of course, it would be churlish of him not to stay at Silchester for a day or two as a guest of Arthur's, and so he found himself yet again seated at the King's high table, one of several guests of honor in attendance.

He was in better spirits at this feast than he had been at Kingsbury, and he listened politely as Arthur talked to him some more about his favorite subject, chivalry.

"Your legendary mercy, to say nothing of your valor, sir, are what I consider to be foundational cornerstones of the chivalrous knight," Arthur was saying. Suddenly, the feast was interrupted by the herald, who came rushing into the hall looking quite agitated.

"Sire," he said breathlessly, "a knight has just arrived slumped over his horse. I think he may be dead! His squire, your majesty..."

A young squire entered the hall, which was now deathly still. He looked sweaty and pale, and his eyes were bugging out of his head in agitation.

"Speak," said Arthur, leaning forward in his seat.

"Your majesty," the squire said, bowing awkwardly, "I have come to your hall to give report of a most grievous harm perpetrated on my lord. We were riding along the road not far from here when we came upon a knight in black. His face was concealed by a helmet, and he would not give his name. He challenged my lord to single combat for no discernible reason; we had never seen this knight before, and knew of no enmity held against us by any. My lord tried to decline the challenge, but the sable knight would hear none of it.

"'A pass with the lance and a pass with the sword: those are my conditions!' he said. And so my lord, who was a valorous knight, gave combat. And he was slain."

The squire bowed his head in sadness as Arthur sprang to his feet.

"But this is an outrage! An affront against the justice that I would see restored to the land! Who here will ride forth in the name of the King and show this sable knight what for?"

Before anyone could react, a squire who had been lurking in the alcove of the hall sprang forward as if propelled by a catapult. He flung himself before Arthur.

"Please your majesty I beg you do me the honor of granting knighthood upon my person that I may ride forth in your name," he said in one long rush, the words tumbling from his mouth. Arthur looked startled, but drew Excalibur forth.

"Who am I to deny the wishes of one as bold as yourself?" he said. "Arise a knight, Sir - uh..."

"Griflet, sire."

"Sir Griflet!"

With that, the newly-knighted Sir Griflet sprang to his feet and dashed from the hall. As his footsteps faded, Herringdale rose.

"Sire, I am no longer in my prime, but I will ride forth in your name as well."

"I would have none other than you, Sir Herringdale," said Arthur. "Go forth and, should young Sir Griflet fail, beard this sable knight in his own lair."

Herringdale departed the hall and got suited up into his armor as quickly as he could. Soon he and Baldrick were on their way, directed by the squire of the knight who was killed. "He awaits you in a wooded glen near a well by the side of the road leading to Otmoor."

Herringdale and Baldrick rode along through the waning afternoon light. Presently, they saw a rider approaching them, slumped over the back of his horse's neck. As they drew near, Herringdale recognized the young Sir Griflet.

With great effort, Griflet raised his head. His face was covered in blood from a nasty scalp wound. "Back that way," said Griflet, sounding totally defeated. Herringdale rode on.

As the sun sank towards the horizon, he spotted the glade. It was thickly wooded with mostly-barren trees that were just beginning to bud. He rode along the road into the glade. Sure enough, there was a great stone well, actually an old Roman fountain, near the road, and seated upon the edge of the well was a knight dressed in black. His helm was off and placed at his feet, and he was taking a great gulp of water from the fountain. Herringdale recognized the knight at once.

"King Pellinore!"

"AYE, THE SAME," said Pellinore in his booming voice. Herringdale had met the king many years ago in a forest in Lincoln. He looked much as he remembered him. If anything, he looked even more formidable.


"You should know that King Arthur, the Pendragon, is in residence at Silchester," Herringdale answered back, "and that he is much aggrieved by your actions here. Ride with me back to the hall and meet with Arthur, I implore you."

"SO THEN, TOO COWARDLY TO FIGHT ME, EH?" said Pellinore. Wordlessly, Herringdale took up a lance that had been instantly proffered by Baldcrick at the word "coward."

"So be it," said Herringdale, donning his helm.

The glade was filled with the sound of thundering horse hooves as the two knights charged each other like runaway ox carts. They met with a terrific crash in the center of the glade - and Herringdale felt his world going topsy-turvy. Pellinore's lance had smashed through his shield and hit him squarely on the sternum, sending him flying from saddle. He had hit the ground hard, and was desperately trying to catch the breath that had been knocked from him on impact. With what little breath remained in his lungs, Herringdale wheezed out, "But why? Why are you doing this?"

Struggling to his feet, he flung off his helm, then nearly collapsed again, stars still circling before his eyes. That had been the mightiest lance blow he'd ever received, and it had nearly been his undoing. [Two points short of a Major Wound and, after the damage from falling off the horse, three points away from Unconscious!] Pellinore, wheeling his horse around, trotted back, discarding his lance as he did so.


Weaving slightly, Herringdale made his way back to his horse, mounted up, and wordlessly rode back to Silchester. As the gloom gathered, he presented himself before Arthur and told of everything that had transpired. Arthur listened closely, a thoughtful look on his face. Several knights vowed to go and fight King Pellinore the next day at first light. As night fell, Herringdale collapsed in sleep in the hall of Duke Ulfius, every muscle in his body aching.

The next morning he was awoken far earlier than he would have liked by the sound of commotion and panic. Rising, bleary-eyed, he saw Sir Kay making for him.

"Up! Up! The king is missing!"

"What's that?" Herringdale asked. "Missing?"

"Yes, yes!" said Kay, clearly agitated. "And Merlin too! If that old enchanter has done anything..."

But Herringdale had a sneaking suspicion.

"I will ride out and look for the king," Herringdale said. "And I will return with him to these halls, or I won't return at all!"

After getting into his armor, he rode out, retracing his steps to the wooded glade. All seemed silent in the still morning air. A mist cloaked the ground and left dew drops on Herringdale's armor and tunic. As he approached the glade, he heard no noises and wondered if his hunch was wrong. But as he rode among the trees, he saw and heard, suddenly, the unmistakable signs of battle.

In the glade there were two knights, both helmeted but each clearly recognizable. One was Pellinore, the other Arthur. They were fighting afoot with sword and shield; shattered lances lay discarded nearby, and their horses were grazing nonchalantly among the trees. Also among the trees lurked Merlin the Enchanter, watching the duel with an impassive expression. From the looks of it, the two warriors had been locked in combat for some time. Their shields were nearly destroyed, and their armor bore many small rents and tears from which blood was oozing and trickling. Even from a distance of 20 yards, Herringdale could hear their ragged breathing beneath their helms.

As Herringdale entered the glade, Pellinore made a desperate lunge towards Arthur, bringing his sword down in a great arc. Arthur raised Excalibur to defend himself - and Pellinore's blade sheared right through it! The blow landed on Arthur's head, denting his helm and laying him out on the ground.

"No!" Herringdale exclaimed. He rushed forward and pulled Arthur's helm off his head. The helm had cut his forehead, but it was only a minor wound. The king's eyes fluttered, then opened. He looked about wildly, then saw Excalibur lying broken beside him. He rose to his knees and cradled the broken blade in his mailed hands. A low moan escaped his lips.

Behind him, Herringdale could sense Pellinore approaching. He too had removed his helm, and his bushy hair and beard were matted to his face with sweat. He was still panting from the exertion of combat. Arthur looked up.

"Never have I fought a warrior as valiant or as worthy as you. I pledge myself to you, Arthur Pendragon," said Pellinore, uncharacteristically quiet, and he kneeled before the king in tribute. Herringdale stood and slowly backed away, then turned and hopped up on his horse, galloping back to Silchester as quickly as he could.

There he found Sir Kay and many other knights of Arthur's court, all gathered around in worried clusters.

"Well, did you find him?" Kay barked.

"I did," said Herringdale, and a great cheer rose up from the court. "But - Excalibur has been broken."

"NO!" shouted Duke Ulfius, who looked suddenly pale. The rest of the court looked similarly stricken, and several knights sat and held their heads in their hands, such was their sorrow at this news.

The remainder of the morning passed in shocked and demoralized silence as the court awaited Arthur's return. Finally, around noontime, he strode in through the hall's great double doors. Herringdale was shocked to see Excalibur at his side, good as new.

"But - Excalibur, sire!" said Ulfius. "Sir Herringdale said he saw it broken upon Pellinore's sword."

"So it was," said Arthur. "But Merlin showed me to an enchanted pond where it was restored. Behold!" And with a flourish he withdrew the blade and the hall once again erupted into cheers.

The next day, Herringdale set out for Du Plain. He mused about the events he had just witnessed. If Merlin hadn't been there to mend the blade, the loss of Excalibur would have been a terrific blow against Arthur's young reign. Yet enchanters rarely granted favors without expecting something in return...

Herringdale gratefully returned to his home and amazed everyone with his tales of what had transpired at St. Albans and Silchester. He then busied himself with the duties of a feudal lord and Marshall, and March turned to April, which turned to May. Again, Herringdale received a summons from Earl Robert, who was now in residence at Ebble Castle for bear hunting in the Camelot Forest. Dutifully Herringdale rode to meet his lord.

"I have received word that this year King Arthur will be gracing Salisbury with his presence during his progress around the kingdom," said the Earl as they rode along through the woods, following the master of the hunt as he tracked bear spoor. "After receiving him at Sarum, I intend to ride with his court to your hall at Du Plain."

Herringdale nodded, ducking a low-hanging branch as he did so. The High King in his own court! This would require much preparation and effort. After an unsuccessful day of hunting, Herringdale departed for Du Plain first thing the following morning.

Over the next month, he personally saw to nearly every detail of preparing Du Plain to host Arthur and his court. The castle's hall would be too small to accommodate everyone, so the feast would have to be divided up into two parts, with the highest-ranking nobles in the hall and everyone else dining under the clouds out in the bailey. Hopefully the weather would hold...

Soon, much faster than Herringdale would have thought possible, the appointed day arrived. The combined retinues of the King and the Earl swelled into Du Plain castle, the village, and all available land around. A small tent city sprang up within an hour of Arthur's arrival, surrounding the castle like a great cloth lake. Pennants displaying the colors of dozens of knights and lords fluttered from as many tent-poles, and Du Plain itself flew the banner of the Pendragon, three gold crowns on a field of blue.

Herringdale [passing his Hospitality and Courtesy rolls] was the model of decorum, welcoming Arthur to his humble hall with all due pomp and circumstance. The King was seated in Herringdale's own chair, and a cavalcade of delectable dishes began to make its way out from the kitchens. Even after the feast had begun, traffic between the hall and the bailey continued unabated as squires, ladies, knights, and servants came and went, along with the steady stream of food and entertainment that was kept up in an endless cycle to entertain the King and his court.

After the feast had gotten under way, an armored knight presented himself before Herringdale.

"I am Sir Lanceor, Prince of Estregales and cousin to King Lak. The King sends his regards, Sir Herringdale, and asks what news from Salisbury."

"You may tell him that I have supped with the High King himself in my own hall, and so too did you. Any kin to Lak is a friend to me," said Herringdale. "Make room for this valiant knight who has ridden many miles to visit my hall!"

And so, still in armor, Sir Lanceor sat at Herringdale's table. It seemed strange to Herringdale that a knight of Estregales would ride so far just to seek out the latest news and gossip, but his keen eye soon detected the real reason for Lanceor's visit: the knight was making eyes with a pretty damsel who was seated at one of the lower tables.

"Who is that maiden that Sir Lanceor keeps looking at?" Herringdale asked Jenna.

"That is the Lady Colombe," said Jenna. "She arrived with Arthur's retinue. I dare say Lanceor fancies her, wouldn't you?" She giggled girlishly, then quickly regained her composure.

Everything was going perfectly according to plan. During the fourth remove, as the roasted capon bones were being cleared away, Herringdale gave Jenna a quick glance and a flash of a smile. She beamed right back - then the smile faded. Herringdale followed her gaze and saw, through the open doors, a damsel entering his hall unannounced. She bore a girdle around her slim waist, hanging from which was a sheathed sword. What a scandal! How unseemly!

An uncomfortable silence fell over the revelers. The damsel strode into the middle of the hall and addressed Arthur.

"Your highness," she said in a carrying voice that seemed to echo out even into the bailey, "The sword I wear at my side can only be drawn by the best of knights. I have walked these lands and visited many courts and I have found none who can do what I ask. I have come here to seek for a knight of your court, which I have heard much praise, who can draw the sword."

This was a challenge that could not easily be ignored! Sir Herringdale, as lord of the hall, was the first to try, and he found the sword simply would not budge from the scabbard. The damsel watched him impassively, and her cold gaze so close up made him uncomfortable. He soon gave up. Others, including Sir Lanceor, also tried, but all failed.

"Tis a pity," said the damsel. "I expected more from the court of the High King." She turned to leave. Just then, a knight who had evidently snuck up from the bailey stepped forward. He must have been another one of Arthur's retinue, for he was certainly no Salisbury knight. He looked of poor and rangy mien, but he wore a smirk of great confidence.

"Perhaps I may try?" he asked. Then, without really waiting for an answer, his hand darted forward, grasped the hilt of the sword, and pulled it free of the scabbard. A great collective gasp went up from the assembled members of court.

The damsel smiled. "Well done, sir knight. You are the one I seek. Now," she said, extending her delicate hand, "I will have the sword back before we proceed."

"No. I don't think so," said the knight, appraising the blade. "None shall take this blade from me, which I rightfully won, but by force."

A murmur went through the crowd. Who was this rapscallion? The damsel's features darkened. "Sir," she said, her voice quaking, "if you do not return the blade, you are a fool. For to keep the sword means that you shall slay the best friend that you have, and the man that you most love, and the sword shall be your destruction."

"I, Sir Balin, will take that adventure," said the knight, "and whatever such challenge that God shall ordain me, but you will have this sword over my dead body."

With that, the damsel's anger broke over her and she burst into tears, then fled from the hall. "You'll regret it, and soon!" she cried.

"As for the rest of you," said Balin with a swagger, "you may call me the Knight of Two Swords!" And he belted the damsel's sword alongside his own.

"Very well," said Arthur, who, somewhat to the mortified Herringdale's surprise and relief, seemed rather amused by what had just transpired. "Knight of Two Swords, will you honor this hall and dine at my side and ride with my court when I depart?"

"I regret I must away, sire," said Balin with a courteous bow. "I depart now to arm for my journey."

"If you must," said Arthur sadly, "but return at any time as my guest."

Scarcely thinking things could get any more surreal, Herringdale was about to signal for the next dish to be brought forth when a trumpet blast from the top of the keep sounded, indicating a new arrival was approaching.

"What now?" Herringdale muttered.

Within minutes, another lady entered the hall. This one Herringdale recognized: it was Nineve, Lady of the Lake. Instead of the simple homespun robes she had worn when he had met her in the marshes of Avalon some years ago, though, she was wearing the finest silks and samite, and was wrapped in a flowing, diaphanous robe that caught the afternoon sunlight streaming in through the doors and seemed to set her aglow.

"My lady!" Arthur exclaimed.

"Yes, it is I!" said Nineve imperiously, drawing herself up before Arthur and Herringdale. "I have come to collect the boon you owe to me. For it was I that restored Excalibur after you so foolishly broke it playing at your games of war, and in return you agreed to grant me a gift."

"And so I shall, as long as it does not besmirch my honor," said Arthur.

"My boon is this: I demand the head of either the knight who just won a sword, or the head of the damsel who brought it. Either one makes no difference, for the knight slew my brother, himself a knight of some renown, and the damsel was the causer of my father's death."

Herringdale felt Jenna grasp his hand in shock and alarm, and again a ripple of muttering swept through the hall.

"This I cannot grant!" said Arthur, also shocked. "It would be a stain on my honor to order the murder of another just to return a favor!"

Herringdale nodded at the King's sense of justice.

"I will take no other reward," said Nineve.

"Oh yes you will!" came a voice from just outside the hall. In walked an armored knight, and although his face was now concealed by a helm, his two swords gave him away instantly: it was Sir Balin!

"YOU!" Nineve screamed, her face distorted with fury.

"Here is your reward!" said Balin, and with one swift motion he drew his sword and lopped off Nineve's head! Her body crumpled to the floor, spilling blood across the fresh carpet of reeds that had been laid down for the feast as screams and yells echoed through the hall.

The commotion brought several knights running up from the bailey, but all stopped short in the doorway, looking on aghast. Arthur was the first in the hall to recover himself.

"Alas, for shame! Why have you done this? You have shamed me, my court, and the hall of my host! I can never forgive you for this double felony!"

"Now...listen...wait..." Sir Balin said, trying to talk over the tumult of protest and condemnation that was being flung at him from all quarters. "I can explain, truly."

Herringdale was also standing. Like the others, he held back from trying to subdue Balin, as the latter was standing with a bared sword in full armor while he, and nearly everyone else, wore only their fine court clothes and had, at most, a dagger at their side.

"Only my hospitality prevents me from having you killed on the spot," Arthur raged, his voice at last bringing silence to the chorus of condemnation. "Depart from here now and roam the woods like a wolf, for all this court is now bound against you!"

As the last words of Arthur's judgment resounded through the hall, Balin nodded. "Very well. Just know that you condemn a man who killed with just cause, for this woman was a liar and a she-dog who lured many good knights to their doom through her sorcery. Furthermore, she brought poison to my own mother when she was lying ill in the Somerset marshes."

Suddenly it clicked for Herringdale: the time he had escorted Nineve through the marshes and woods of Somerset, she had administered poison to an old and ailing woman. It had been Balin's mother!

"Whatever reason you have, you should not have done this in my court," said Arthur. "You will be sorry for this, believe me, for this is the worst thing that has ever happened in my court. Get away from me as quickly as you can. I cannot promise my own knights will be as forgiving as I."

With that, Balin bowed to Arthur, then to Herringdale, then picked up the head of Nineve by the hair and strode from the court. Barely had he departed when Sir Lanceor, still in armor, jumped up.

"Sire, by your leave?" he asked, kneeling.

"Go," said Arthur simply, and Lanceor rushed from the hall. As he did so, Lady Colombe jumped up.

"No, wait!" she shouted, and she too rushed from the hall.

The court quickly devolved into outraged shouts and cries for justice. By the dozen, knights poured from the hall to suit up for war and follow Lanceor's example. Herringdale, meanwhile, saw to the proper disposal of Nineve's corpse.

Some hours passed. At last, a strange knight from Cornwall presented himself at Herringdale's hall. He had been on his way to the feast when he had witnessed the fight that occurred when Lanceor caught up with Balin.

"The Knight with Two Swords struck him down," said the Cornish knight sadly. "And what is worse, when his lady saw what had happened, she took Lanceor's sword and ran it through her own belly. I immediately ordered my men to give the couple a proper burial, and already the locals are assembling a crypt around the burial site using stones from a nearby Roman ruin. Here's the strangest bit, though: as my men were digging the grave, that old enchanter Merlin showed up."

"Merlin, here?" asked Arthur, startled.

"Indeed. He told me that this was the site where the two best knights in the land would one day fight."

"How marvelous and strange!" said Arthur in wonderment.

Three days later, after Arthur's court had departed, Herringdale rode out to the makeshift crypt, which lay about a half-mile east of Du Plain, just across the Test River. It had indeed been built quickly and already looked like a proper mausoleum. Circling the tomb, he saw that someone - a priest most likely - had engraved little sayings on three sides of the structure:

  • “Here lieth Lanceor the King’s son of Ireland, what at his own request was slain by the hands of Balin.”
  • “His lady, Colombe, and paramour, slew herself with her love’s sword for dole and sorrow.”
  • “Here shall fight the two best knights in the world.”

Herringdale shook his head. Was the whole world going mad? Marauding Saxons and power-mad kings, these things he could understand. But the new generation of knights coming up, they just made no sense to him! Increasingly, he was feeling alienated from the strange new world that was growing up around Arthur's court.

With July came something Herringdale could understand all too well: the prospect of battle! Arthur, having made his progress through Logres, had issued a call to assemble for war. He was marching north to humble Malahaut. Earl Robert was taking a company of 30 Salisbury knights to march with the King, but he did not summon Herringdale.

"You have done your service to me already, old friend," he explained during a visit to Du Plain shortly before departing on campaign. "Remain behind in your capacity as Marshall and see to the administration of my lands."

And so Herringdale was left behind. Two months later, Earl Robert returned with tales of war and bloodshed.

"It was a terrific battle on the banks of the Brassus River," he told Herringdale during the welcoming feast at Sarum. "King Pellinore marched with us, and he killed the Centurion King with a single blow of the lance during the first charge!"

"I can believe it," said Herringdale, rubbing his chest.

"Well, you can imagine what that did to the morale of the Malahaut army. And then, Malahaut's only ally in battle, King Nentres of Garloth, was also killed. We had a bit of trouble from the Nentres's son, Galegantis, who rightly wanted to avenge his father, but that was soon put to an end. The Brown Knight of the Wilds - you met him, odd fellow - well, he took Galegantis prisoner and that was the last straw!"

Sadly, Herringdale remembered attending the wedding of Nentres to Igraine's daughter Elaine. Better times.

"But get this: after battle, the Brown Knight let Galegantis go without ransom! Can you even imagine? He spouted something about how defeating an honorable opponent in battle is reward enough. I agree to an extent - but to forgo a defeated Prince's ransom? I think all these notions of chivalry are starting to addle some heads!"

Herringdale nodded in fervent agreement. Was the whole younger generation completely mad, then?

"Arthur wasn't quite as high-minded, of course," Robert continued. "Although he did offer very reasonable terms to the Malahaut heir, who is now styling himself the King of 100 Knights in the manner of his father. But Arthur's holding on to Garloth, saying it's his sister's by right and he'll keep it in her name. He said that if Galegantis serves him faithfully that he'll reward him suitably in the future. The King and his men are still up north, getting things secured in Malahaut. We may be marching north again next year, although I heard that Lot and his army were raiding Cambria this year. We'll see."

And so, with Robert's departure, the year began its slow, inexorable decline. One autumn afternoon, a messenger brought Herringdale a letter. It bore the seal of the Orkney clan, and was from Sir Gawaine, the young knight Herringdale had befriended the year before. Herringdale handed it to his steward to read:

Sir Herringdale - My apologies for not writing you sooner. I had every intention of coming south to visit you this year, but a most terrible event has transpired that has filled the hall of my father and mother with great sorrow. Last year my mother revealed she was with child, and there was great rejoicing among the people of our kingdom. The boy was born on the first of May and was healthy.

Then, as my mother tells it, Merlin came to our kingdom, and with smooth words, threats, or magic he collected all the noble boys born in May, including her own young baby boy. She then tells me that she was visited by the mothers of the missing babies to ask her where their boys had gone. That night, as a dark storm raged, my mother looked into a pool that she uses to grant her visions of things that have come to pass or may yet come to pass. There she saw a vision of their infant sons aboard an unscrewed, storm-tossed ship, groaning toward dark, wave-lashed rocks. As the ladies and their followers watched, the ship groaned and, with a crack like thunder, broke in two, filling with water. The mothers burst into tears, and their tears joined the blowing rain and the waters of the magical pool. The vision vanished.

My father returned shortly thereafter and was greeted with this most terrible news. His wrath is great, and I am afraid to say that it is directed mostly at your fine land, though I think this rash. I will not march with him to war, but I cannot come to your hall and dishonor his name in such a way either. I hope you understand, and I hope for peace between our two courts in due course.

As the steward finished reading the letter, Herringdale looked to Lady Jenna, who had been listening to the tale with shocked disbelief.

"King Lot marches to war next year, mark my words," he said grimly. "And God help those of us who stand in his way."
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