Thursday, December 9, 2010

[Solo GPC] 515: The Grey Knight (Part I)

I've been looking forward to this year for a while now. The year 515 marks the 30-year anniversary from the start of the game. I can't believe Sir Herringdale is in his 50s! Being the evil GM I am, I have no intention of letting up on the poor bastard for this anniversary year. Accordingly, the adventure slated for this year is a real doozy, and it could lead in any of a multitude of directions and have some serious repercussions for our redoubtable knight. Then again, he might just sail through it with nary a scratch. As a GM, I love being as surprised as the players by the twists and turns of a campaign. Granted, that doesn't happen as often when you're sitting on the chart-side of the proverbial screen, but that does tend to make those surprise moments all the sweeter. I have a feeling this year's adventure has a lot of potential in that regard, thus my relish.

[Check it out: I learned about jump breaks!]

Knowing that this would be a multi-session year, I paced things for our first session so that we'd get to the thrilling plot hook as a bit of a mini-cliffhanger ("Tune in next week..."). Events kicked off, as always, with the Winter Phase. Thanks to the mystical benefits of Arthur and Guenevere's wedding, all of Britain enjoyed a flush harvest; the storehouses were overflowing with nature's bounty, the combs were oozing honey, the cattle were fat and ready for slaughter, and the commoners satiated. At Du Plain Castle, the prosperous year was also apparent in Lady Jenna's belly, which was again heavy with child. When, during a late winter snowstorm, the new addition to Herringdale's clan arrived, the news spread quickly: it was another girl! In addition to the twin girls Jenna had given birth to shortly after their marriage, this brought Herringdale's compliment of legitimate offspring up to five females and nary a surviving son in sight. It was also a fertile year at Broughton Hall - after a daliance with a handsome young stable boy, Meleri found herself with child as well, and she too gave birth to a daughter.

[I've added a few solos to the available list, and Des went with the "Chance for Dalliance" solo for Meleri. Three dice rolls later...]

As spring blossomed and traffic to his court increased, Herringdale began to put his command of gossip and rumors to good use. There was quite a bit of buzz surrounding the arrival of the nephew of the Emperor of Byzantium at Arthur's court. Herringdale made a mental note to introduce himself to young Sir Sagremor of Byzantium at the first opportunity. Closer to home, word had come from the West that Prince Mark had succeeded his father Idres as king of Cornwall and Brittany. Meanwhile, the Saxons, having grown tired of beating up on each other for the past few years, were once again starting to turn their aggressions outward; reports of raids in many points along the frontier were coming in, although none had dared risk a strike against Herringdale's secured Salisbury border.

Most of the buzz was surrounding an Easter tournament to be held at Silchester by the High King's command. This "royal" tournament was quickly promising to become the social event of the year, with attendance all but mandatory for the high-ranking nobility of Logres. With a heavy sigh, Herringdale made preparations to move his court to Silchester in time for Easter. The tournament was set to kick off the week after Easter, but Earl Robert had made it clear that he would be arriving in time for Easter weekend and Bishop Bedwin's Sunday mass. Following his liege lord's lead, Herringdale headed to Sarum to join up in the grand holiday procession.

The Earl's court stretched for nearly a mile along the Royal Road, a glittering panoply of noble lords, dainty ladies, beardless squires, snorting horses, braying asses, bleating goats, ringing bells, creaking wagon wheels, and commoners laughing, singing, and shouting boisterously. Crossing into Silchester county, the roads became increasingly clogged with travelers. Soon a sort of medieval gridlock had developed as various caravans met and intermingled, slowed by ox carts and herds of cattle being driven towards the tournament city. It seemed all of Britain was turning out for the grand tournament!

At one point, having become separated from the Earl's larger procession, Herringdale found himself, along with his retinue, brought to a complete halt on the road. There was some sort of obstruction up ahead and it was quickly causing traffic to back up into a chaotic mess. Nearby, an Irish cattle drover shouted profanities as he took his hairy kine off the trail in an attempt to bypass the mess. Herringdale rode through the gathering crowd, who parted before such an esteemed Lord of Britain.

It quickly became apparent what was causing the jam, and what everyone was gawping at. A strange tableau was laid out across the breadth of the King's Road: an ox lay slumped near the shoulder, its throat slashed and the last vestiges of blood feebly trickling from its severed veins as it breathed its last breaths. The ox was still hitched to a two-wheeled cart, which had turned over when the beast collapsed, spilling its contents across the road. Near the cart, a man lay unconscious, his face battered. His limp body was being cradled by a weeping woman while a younger lady holding a squalling infant lingered nearby, also weeping.

In the center of the road stood a proud knight in armor. His squire stood nearby, holding the knight's shield and helm. Herringdale noticed the shield had been splattered with mud from the road. Turning his attention back to the knight, there was something in the man's sneering face that seemed familiar, but Herringdale couldn't place a name to the face or heraldry.

The mystery knight was looming over another peasant, an old man who was groveling and clutching at the knight's surcoat, weeping and pleading. The churl's cries seemed only to inspire the knight to violence, however - he roundly thumped the old man about the face with his mailed fist, a manic gleam in his eyes, as Herringdale rode forth.

"Hold your wrath, good sir!" Herringdale said as he approached. "What has this peasant done to offend you so?"

The young man looked up. For a moment he was silent, his eyes flashing over Herringdale's coat of arms. But the sneer quickly returned to his face.

"This villein's son marked my shield! I am simply administering appropriate justice."

Herringdale considered the matter [as Des failed her Just roll]. To mark a knight's shield so close to the tournament was not only an insult, but could be construed as an attempt to prevent the knight from being able to enter.

"That is indeed regrettable, sir," said Herringdale at length. "But I think you have punished these poor wretches enough."

"He killed our ox!" cried the young woman over the squalls of her child.

"I shall see to your restitution," said Herringdale, dispatching Baldrick with coin sufficient to purchase a replacement animal from the Irish drover, who like the whole gathered crowd was watching the proceedings transfixed.

The young knight's eyes blazed but he held his tongue. Shooting one last dirty look at Herringdale, he mounted his own horse and, brandishing a horse whip, carved a swath through the throng, cursing and shouting. Herringdale remained long enough to make sure the peasant family received their ox at a fair price, then made to ride on.

At this point, he was approached by a holy man in the brown robes of a mendicant friar.

"That was a right goodly and Christian thing you did, sir," said the friar, his cheeks still flushed with anger over the events he had witnessed.

"What happened precisely?" Herringdale asked.

"That knight was trying to force his way through the crowds and grew enraged when yonder cart blocked his way. Before the driver could move the cart, the knight struck out with his sword at the ox, felling it. This tipped the wagon, which in turn splashed mud upon the knight's shield, enraging him further. He beat the young man unconscious and was looking set to do the same to the man's father when you arrived."

Herringdale frowned at this news. Although he still felt the knight was right to be upset over the marking of his shield, the fact that it was the knight himself who caused the shield to be marked gave him pause as to the appropriateness of the knight's actions.

"May God go with you in your endeavors at the tournament," said the friar as Herringdale mounted up to ride on.

Later that day, Herringdale and his party arrived at Silchester. The stout Roman walls were surrounded by a sea of colorful tents, each flying the pennant of its occupant. Instructing Baldrick to find a suitable place to erect their camp, Herringdale headed into the city to present himself at court.

Moving through the crowded city streets, Herringdale was surprised to find himself the subject of friendly greetings from a group of friars passing the other direction. Apparently word had already spread of his actions on the road.

At the keep of Silchester Castle, Herringdale was met by Sir Constantine, young son of Lord Cynrain, steward to the king.

"I will convey word of your arrival to my father," said Constantine. "There will be a royal feast this evening where you will be formally presented to the royal couple. In the meantime, the Master of the Lists is taking registration for the tournament at the basillica."

Thanking Constantine, Herringdale mounted his horse and rode back into the castle courtyard. As he neared the entrance, he found a crowd gathered. They were all cheering and looking up, above and beyond Herringdale. Turning, he saw Arthur and Guenevere standing at a balcony near the top of the keep, waving down at the crowd.

"Long live Guenevere!" Herringdale cheered, forgetting to hail his king first. Fortunately, his voice mixed in with the rest of the cheers and, besides, many others were calling Guenevere's name in preference to Arthur. Even at this distance, her beauty and charisma were remarkable. The royal couple shortly retired into the depths of the keep and the cheers began to die down.

Smiling, Herringdale reined his horse around to ride on, but found his path blocked by a procession of pages bearing large trays laden with steaming piles of food. Leading the way were two knights; Herringdale recognized one of them as Sir Kay, and he looked to be in a foul temper.

"Honestly, Bedivere, how are we expected to tend to our duties if these massed rabble insist on blocking our progress?"

Despite Kay's grousing, the two horses were effectively cutting a swath through the crowd and the pages following behind were handling their trays with ease. Until, that is, a stray dog came bounding out of the crowd, its jowls slavering at the smell of so many richly prepared meats. Herringdale's mount started in fear, but the old knight quickly quieted it. Kay wasn't so lucky; the dog darted between his horse's legs and the beast reared in surprise. Kay went flying with a shouted curse, landing directly on a platter of sauced meat tiles.

His clothes in ruins, Kay slowly got to his feet, his face redder than a hot stove. Herringdale stifled a laugh, and unfortunately Kay heard it.

"You! That dog came from your direction! Was that yours?"

"Er, no--"

"Did you do this to humiliate me or did you have a more fiendish plan in mind?" Kay ranted on, shrugging off the calming hand of Sir Bedivere.

"Listen--" said Herringdale, but he was cut off again by Kay's shouts.

"Fool! Dolt! Are you so old and senile? Seek not to sway me with honeyed words, knave! I already have the measure of you. A turn or two on the wheel is what you deserve for this insult!"

"Now hold on just a minute--" Herringdale said, his own temper beginning to rise.

"Kay, do you realize who you are talking to?" Bedivere said in a small voice. Suddenly, a robust laugh rang out across the courtyard. Distracted, Kay looked out over the crowd. Herringdale looked as well and saw another young knight approaching on horseback: Sir Gawaine. The crowd, which had been watching everything with rapt attention, parted for the eldest Orkney son, who wore an amused grin.

"By St. George, this is a pretty sight! A new dish: seneschal in sauce with meat tiles! You have truly made my day, Sir Herringdale!"

Herringdale returned Gawaine's smile and clapped him on the back as he drew close. Out of the corner of his eye, Herringdale saw Bedivere taking advantage of the distraction to calm Kay and lead him away.

"Shall we proceed to the Master of the Lists?" asked Gawaine amiably.

"Yes, let's do," said Herringdale.

As they rode away, Gawaine continued to chuckle. "I saw the whole thing from afar," he said. "I know it was just an accident, but oh was it a delight to see that blowhard Kay laid low! Ha!"

Herringdale began to laugh as well. They continued to laugh and chat amicably all the way to the basilica. As they registered their arms for the tournament, however, Herringdale suddenly became serious. Seeing Gawaine's heraldry, he realized where he'd seen the arms of the knight on the road: he was a fellow Orkney knight, Gawaine's brother Agravaine!

"I met your brother on the road earlier today," said Herringdale as they rode away from the church.

"Oh?" said Gawaine casually, taking in the sights and smells of the main road with its many stalls of fresh ale and fair food.

"Would that I could say that it was as pleasant a time as I've had with you."

Gawaine's manner changed immediately - his back grew stiff, his face wary. "What do you mean, sir?"

"Listen," said Herringdale, "I know you love your family greatly, and that is most admirable, but your brother..."

"Is my responsibility, and I cannot have others speaking ill of him," said Gawaine stiffly.

"Of course," said Herringdale.

By this point, they had reached the city gates and they went their separate ways with courteous but oddly formal farewells.

After finding his grand pavilion tent, Herringdale spent the remainder of the afternoon preparing for the feast, getting into his fanciest clothes as Lady Jenna dressed in the next room. When she appeared, she was resplendent in a green velvet gown with gold embroidery and gems sewn into the hems. Taking her husband's arm, the couple proceeded towards the keep.

The castle courtyard was crowded with nobles and ladies waiting to be announced to the High King and Queen. As a Round Table knight, Herringdale was ushered in and announced early on and given a seat at the far end of the high table. Gradually, the great hall filled with diners, including many of the luminaries of Britain. Herringdale watched Bishop Bedwin discuss theology with his cousin, Sir Baudwin, Constable of London. King Pellinore, seated next to the Queen, entertained Guenevere with a spirited imitation of the call of the Questing Beast. Nudging Herringdale's arm, Lady Jenna pointed out Merlin, who was apparently...besotted with the Lady Nimue of the Lake? Could it be that the old archdruid had fallen in love? If that were the case, the feeling was clearly not mutual - Nimue's thoughts were obviously elsewhere.

Closer to, another infamous weaver of the arcane arts, Morgan le Fay, dressed in a gorgeous gown of blue silk with daring decolletage, sat at her brother Arthur's side, seemingly quite content. Herringdale couldn't help but think of the rumors he'd heard about her, that she plotted against Arthur and his rule. As the first course of the night was brought out and the last mingling diners were taking their places, Herringdale also noticed Agravaine talking with Gawaine and his other brother Gaheris. Herringdale didn't like the looks Agravaine was shooting his direction, nor the look of grim determination on Gawaine's face.

This sense of unease was soon buried under a cavalcade of one sumptuous dish after another. The crowning glory was an entire roasted swan, presented garlanded and crowned, with its wings spread as if in flight. Its neck was arched backward, head erect. The whole thing was glazed in chaudron sauce made from the swan's own guts, cut small and boiled in broth, blood, and vinegar with strong spices and served hot. The swan was led out by Sir Kay himself, now dressed in sauce-free clothing. He personally carved for Arthur and Guenevere, then left the rest of the carving to his assistants - he had caught sight of Herringdale.

"Well, well, if it isn't the coward who fled from my justice earlier this day," said Kay as he approached the seated Herringdale. The hall went quiet. Herringdale stood.

"I do not take words like that lightly, sir," said Herringdale, his voice ringing out through the room. He took his tooled leather glove from where it was tucked in his belt. "If you do not immediately withdraw your accusation, then I shall meet you on the challenge field at the tourney in one week's time."

Kay eyed the glove, swallowed hard, and mumbled an apology, slinking off. He then returned to carving the swan, cuffing a page on the ear for cutting the meat too thin. Conversation in the hall resumed. As he sat, Herringdale noticed Nimue staring at him. For a moment, he knew what it would feel to be a mouse under the gaze of a swooping owl - time seemed to stop as the sounds of the feast faded into the background. Then Nimue blinked and looked away. A handsome man standing at her side leaned in and whispered something to her, looking at Herringdale as he did so. The man's face looked familiar - then Herringdale placed it: he had seen the man near the peasant's cart on the road earlier that day. He was clearly not a knight, but who was he?

The remainder of the feast passed without incident. Contortionist fire-eaters from distant India entertained the festers as a final course of wild strawberries in cream was served and gradually the revelers began to drift away. Lady Jenna stifled a yawn; it was time to go. Taking her hand, Herringdale began to lead his wife from the hall until he was stopped by the sound of a familiar name: "Sir Balin."

Two knights at one of the low tables were engaged in a spirited debate and one of them had just mentioned the name of the infamous knight who had beheaded Lady Nineve in Herringdale's own hall. The knight blanched when he saw Herringdale looking at him, but quickly recovered his composure.

"Begging your pardon, sire," said the knight. "My colleague and I were just discussing Sir Balin, Knight of the Two Swords."

"Yes, I know who he is," said Herringdale, smiling ruefully. "Go on."

"Of-of course you do," said the knight, nodding and smiling as well, visibly relaxing. "It's just that Sir Cynwal here was telling me that one of his kinsman has just returned from a journey to the north country, and he has quite a tale to tell, doesn't he?"

"Indeed, Sir Graid," said Cynwall. "My cousin journeyed north to find a land devastated by the actions of Sir Balin. He struck down his host, the king of the land, in a fit of rage, and the locals are calling it the 'Dolorous Stroke' for it has unleashed a great enchantment upon the countryside. Crops fail, children sicken and die, and fell beasts - and worse - stalk the land!"

At this point Cynwall lowered his voice a bit. "I was merely telling Sir Graid that in light of this news, I think it was wrong of Arthur to banish Sir Balin. Had he not done so, the Dolorous Stroke would not have brought such ruin to a once good and peaceful land."

"And I was saying," muttered Graid through clenched teeth, "that you are too quick to condemn our king's actions when it was in fact Sir Balin's foolish and unchivalrous behavior that has created these Wastelands you speak of."

Both knights now looked to Sir Herringdale. "You knew Sir Balin," said Cynwall, "and you are a great knight of the realm. What say you on this matter, Sir Herringdale?"

Herringdale thought for a moment. "I agree with Sir Graid. King Arthur could not have foreseen Sir Balin's actions when he banished him from court, and banishment was the only fit punishment for actions as outrageous as those of the Knight with Two Swords."

Both knights nodded, the matter settled, but Sir Cynwall cast Herringdale a resentful look as he rose to take his leave.

That Sunday was Easter Mass at the basilica. The tournament was scheduled to begin the next day. There was to be a grand melee in the style of the Winter Tournament of 510, but the first morning of the tourney was to be given over to personal challenges: any knight who so wished was allowed to issue a challenge to single combat with another knight. After mass on Sunday, Jenna asked Herringdale if he was planning to participate in the challenges.

"Only if someone challenges me!" Herringdale replied with a twinkle in his eye.

"Do you think that likely?" Jenna asked, her face a mask of concern.

"Now, now, don't fret, dear," Herringdale said reassuringly. "I expect it will mostly be this crop of young and eager knights bashing each other over the head, leaving us codgers to look on and laugh."

The following morning dawned under a blanket of cool mist as trumpets blasted out the call to the tournament grounds. Herringdale, along with a couple dozen other knights, was already up and dressed, having attended a dawn mass in a chapel near the tournament grounds outside the city. The friar who had encountered Herringdale on the road was attending as well, and the two chatted afterward.

"I never got the chance to introduce myself," said the monk. "I am Friar Coombs. I have told all my brethren of your actions on the road on Maundy Thursday. Again, I wish you Godspeed and His protection in the melee."

Herringdale thanked Father Coombs and headed off to get into armor and prepare to present himself to Arthur.

A half-hour later, the mist was already burning off. It promised to be a warm spring day, perfect conditions for a tussle. All participating knights had assembled before the High King's royal viewing box, all displaying their shields and heraldry proudly.

"It pleases me to see the flower of chivalry arrayed before us in such magnificent panoply," Arthur said, his arms spread wide in a gesture of welcome. "Before we attend to the melee, the Herald will read out the challenges and the order they shall come in and the terms of the challenge."

A herald stepped forward, unfurling a roll of parchment as he did so. He cleared his throat and began reading names: "Sir Griflet challenges Sir Tor to a pass of the joust..." Herringdale began to tune out - until he heard his own name: "Sir Cynwal challenges Sir Herringdale to sword on foot to first blood..."

"What the devil...?" Herringdale muttered. Looking about, he soon picked Sir Cynwal out of the crowd. The young knight nodded back, looking a bit pale despite the bright morning sun. The list continued. Just as Herringdale was getting over his initial shock, he heard his name again. "Sir Gawaine challenges Sir Herringdale to a pass with the lance, thence to sword on horseback..." Gawaine! So he was defending the perceived slight on his brother's honor, was he? Herringdale rubbed his bearded chin in apprehension.

Finally the Herald finished reading off his list and the challenges began. Herringdale watched with interest. Sir Tor and Sir Griflet took a pass at each other on horseback with the result of Griflet being thrown to the ground. As he lay on his back groaning, an attractive young damsel ran to his side and took his head in her hands, shouting invective up at the nonplussed Sir Tor. Other knights took turns beating on each other with varying results until it was time for Herringdale's first challenge.

He walked out onto the field before the royal box and turned to face Sir Cynwal, who saluted him with his sword. Herringdale returned the salute, then donned his helmet. The two knights circled each other, testing each others' defenses, before Herringdale dove in with a feint. Cynwal predictably lowered his defenses to block the low swipe, at which point Herringdale snapped his wrist and brought his blade up and around in a blow that could have taken Cynwal's head off, armor and all, had not Herringdale checked his blow at the last second. Instead of a mortal blow, the blade bit just enough to cut through Cynwal's mail and slice into his shoulder. Grunting in pain, Cynwal fell backwards, clutching his shoulder as he threw his sword down. Many cheers were raised by the crowd in recognition of Herringdale's masterful victory.

"Have my blade resharpened while I wait to face Gawaine," Herringdale told Baldrick as he left the field. For his part, Herringdale retired to his tent to rest and prepare for the next fight. He was anticipating this next one to be harder-won than his last.

An hour passed and morning drew closer to noon. At last, Herringdale was summoned back to the field. Gawaine awaited him, mounted upon a richly-caparisoned warhorse, lance in hand. Herringdale mounted up on Smuggy IV and took the lance Baldrick handed him.

"Good luck, m'lord," said Baldrick.

"Thanks Baldrick," said Herringdale as he donned his helm again.

A trumpet blast signaled that the joust could begin. The two knights charged at each other, lances going level. Both lances connected. Herringdale was rocked sideways in his saddle, but kept his seat. Wheeling Smuggy about, he saw Gawaine still mounted as well, tossing aside a shattered lance. Herringdale threw his own intact lance down and drew his sword.

Once again, the two knights charged, swords held out at arms' length. The blades flashed under the noonday sun. Herringdale felt Gawaine's blade strike his shield with a force he might have expected from a giant. Caught off-guard by the unexpected power of the blow, Herringdale lost his balance and slipped from the saddle, hitting the ground hard, his old bones and joints screaming in protest. It took him a couple minutes to regain his breath and feet. By that point, Gawaine had ridden back over and dismounted and was offering his hand. Herringdale took it and stood up.

"I hope you understand there were no hard feelings," said Gawaine, his helm now tucked under his arm. Herringdale, still a bit winded, merely nodded.

[Gawaine's Strength waxes and wanes with the sun. It's at its height at noon. I randomly determined which hour he'd face Herringdale and rolled high, much to Herringdale's misfortune. It's just a good thing this was a tournament and Gawaine was pulling his blows...]

As their fight was the last of the day, the way was now cleared for the grand melee. As the warm spring breeze crisply snapped pennants and banners blowing under the sunny, cloudless sky, King Arthur stood and made ready to make a speech. But his words were drowned out by a sudden clap of thunder quite literally from out of the blue. As the sound reverberated across the fields, there was left in its wake perfect silence. No one stirred or spoke, so shocked were they by the sudden noise. Even the birds in the trees had fallen silent. The pleasant spring breeze had also died away, leaving only stagnant air hanging thickly on the grounds.

Suddenly, from across the fields, came a wall of thick billowing white fog. It rose up over Silchester and settled about the tournament grounds with an unnatural rapidity. Overhead, the blue sky took on an aspect of chill emptiness as cold seeped in to everyone's bones, causing many to shudder and pull their cloaks tight.

In the gloom of the fog a strange misshapen form began to appear. It soon became clear that the form was that of a bearded dwarf atop an emaciated donkey. As the crowd watched in amazement, the donkey slowly clopped to the center of the grounds where the challenges had just been fought. Without a word, the dwarf lifted an iron horn to his lips and blew a discordant note.

"Notable lords and gracious ladies, attend now upon my mistress and her champion!" cried the dwarf in a thin, reedy voice.

At this, two more shapes took form in the mist. Riding onto the grounds came a lady seated upon a midnight-black palfrey, her own garb equally black. Her face was covered in a mourning veil. Behind her rode a knight in lusterless grey armor, his helm in the visage of a leering skull. His shield also bore the device of a skull. His cloak and tabard, although thick, fluttered as if made of spider web or some other diaphanous material. A giant of a man, he rode an enormous charger cloaked in the same grey material as his tabard and cloak. Wisps of the fog swirled around him, seemingly rising from the ground before him. The charnel smell that hung about him was apparent even from where Herringdale stood. Worst of all, he made no sound as he followed his lady forward.

The knight paused at the dwarf's side, but the lady continued to ride forward until she was directly in front of the royal box. At that point, she drew back her black veil. Herringdale could see that she had once possessed great beauty, but now her face was etched with deep lines of hatred and grief, giving her a wholly unpleasant aspect. She fixed her baleful gaze upon Arthur himself. The High King seemed to shiver and withdraw under the ferocity of her look, and Guenevere slipped a reassuring arm into Arthur's.

"Arthur Pendragon, Killer of Babies," said the woman in black, her voice ringing out like a funerary bell, "I accuse you in the name of all the innocents you have so foully slain!"

The silence that had reigned over the crowd was at last broken by a chorus of gasps and outraged shouts. Arthur had grown pallid and pale and looked fit to swoon, but Guenevere tightened her grip on his arm. Herringdale saw Gawaine's hand fly to his sword. With Arthur seemingly unable to speak, Guenevere spoke instead, her voice steady and poised.

"Good Lady, your words are passing harsh. Why do you accuse my husband the King, whose chivalry
is unmatched in all the realm?"

"Is it chivalry, then," asked the lady in black, her face twisted by a cruel sneer, "that on May Day three years past put to death the newborn sons of Lothian? Such chivalry I spit upon!"

Herringdale instantly grasped what the lady was referring to: the dogged rumors that Arthur had ordered all the babies born in Lothian in May of 512 to be rounded up and sent out to sea aboard a rudderless ship. But these were just rumors - he had also heard that it was Queen Margawse, or King Lot, who was behind the incident, which he rather doubted had happened at all. It was just too outrageous to believe. But who, then, were these people?

"You are not fit to rule this gleaming isle, Arthur," the lady in black continued. "It is my intent to make proof of this. Here stands my champion."

The lady indicated the Grey Knight, who immediately drew his sword, as lusterless as his armor, and nudged his horse to a trot. Riding to the royal box, with two mighty swipes he cut through the stout poles bearing the standards of the King and of the City of Silchester, sending them crashing to the earth amidst the gasps of the court. The Grey Knight sheathed his sword and rode back to take up position beside his lady.

"I herewith challenge your Court and your rule, Arthur Pendragon," said the lady. "Forty-two days hence, on the feast of Pentecost, let the death of your champion at the hands of mine prove to all that your soul is condemned and your honor is a sham. If any of this company dare to champion a slayer of babies?"

A great silence settled in over the assembled crowd. Herringdale's eyes flicked around and he immediately keyed in on the one face in the crowd that did not look worried or fearful: Morgan le Fay, who sat a few seats from her brother, was, of all things, smiling. Putting this aside, Herringdale swallowed hard and began to step forward, ready to take up the challenge. He noticed a few other knights doing the same, but they were all beaten to the punch by a familiar voice.

"I accept this challenge in the name of my King and good uncle, Arthur Pendragon. Let my sword cleanse his name forever of this vile accusation!" Gawaine's voice rang out across the silent grounds. The lady smiled and nodded even as Arthur sprang from his seat, shouting in protest, "Gawaine, no!"

Again the king's words were drowned out by a great noise, this time from the dwarf's iron horn, which blew a great discordant note so loud and terrible that all clapped their hands over their ears at the pain it caused. As the noise died away, the mysterious trio was already riding back into the fog. The lady's voice came floating back: "We shall return at this same hour on the Pentecost. May Jesu have mercy upon your soul, young knight."

And at this, the dwarf, the Lady in Black, and the Grey Knight entered the mist and disappeared. The mist quickly retreated with their departure, the day returning to the way it was, the sky blue, bright, sunny, and clear. A warm breeze blew over the fields and woods. The only hint that what just happened was not some horrible nightmare was the unnatural silence that continued to hover over the grounds. Of the strange trio, there was no sign. Yet as the King and Queen rushed off with a most distraught Merlin, it was obvious that what had taken place was all too real...
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