To answer this question, I envisioned this year as forming the first of a three-part arc. Yes, some day canon fanboys of this chronicle (I'm sure there's one or two of them already out there, partially-formed) may refer to this as the "Saxon arc." Or maybe I'm just calling it that right now myself. As the name suggests, this year marks the return of the Saxon menace...along with the return of some ghosts of Herringdale's past.
But first, we check in with the heir apparent of our campaign, Lady Meleri. I'm going to try and work in a little time with her in upcoming sessions until she becomes the main character, if for nothing else than to help with the inevitable passing of the torch; Des recently told me Herringdale has taken pride of place as her favorite character of all time. No pressure, Meleri!
For her part in this year, the Winter Phase solo revealed that Meleri had spent the last few months visiting a foreign court. Des chose to have Meleri return for a visit with Queen Morgan le Fay, whom Meleri had served as a lady-in-waiting during her minority. Morgan was in residence at Gaiholm Castle in the harsh hill country of Gorre this year and it was there that Meleri took her retinue for the winter. The season was spent in weaving, idle chatter, and discussion of the political landscape of the kingdoms of the Gleaming Isle. We opened on an early spring afternoon with Meleri still in residence at Gaiholm. The weather was turning, albeit slowly, and Meleri was awaiting favorable conditions with which to take passage on a southbound ship, the roads having been deemed unsafe due to increased raids out of Deira and dire rumors of massing Saxon hordes.
[Quick side note: I usually try and print out a picture of an NPC if I have one in mind before start of play. When I presented the picture at left to Des, she quickly secreted it away in her character folder, muttering something about "saving this one for my hope chest." I'm glad the picture had the intended effect, as you'll see shortly.]
The knight and lady exchanged a moment's silent gaze, then the sound of horse hooves crashing through the woods brought Meleri back to her immediate surroundings. Another knight, this one mounted, emerged from a copse of trees not far from where the first knight had come. Meleri noted both men were accoutered for the hunt, each wielding a spear and wearing leathers over their tunics and breeches.
Meleri could feel the little animal shivering with fright between her feet. She flashed a mysterious smile at both men.
"Why do you seek such a lowly animal, sir knights? Surely a boar or stag is more fitting quarry for men such as yourselves."
"We have sworn an oath to hunt the white hare of these woods. The knight who captures it shall be deemed the more worthy," said the first knight with a strange accent Meleri had never heard before.
Despite the adversarial nature of their quest, Meleri could sense that it was merely friendly camaraderie between two knights who were clearly bosom friends. As the hunt was little more than boys playing at hunting, she silently sided with the rabbit.
"I have seen nothing come through here, but you are free to ride on if you wish," she said, inclining her head courteously.
"My lady," said the first knight. "Come, Sir Dodinas! The hunt is resumed."
"Hold up, Sir Sagremor," said the knight called Dodinas. "I see tracks that enter this lawn but cannot see where they exit." He turned once again to Meleri. "My lady, are you sure you did not see a hare come through here?"
"Quite sure," said Meleri. "Perhaps the rabbit has eluded you with sorcery?"
The two knights cast quick glances at Morgan's keep, looming not a quarter-mile distant on a great motte, then both laughed heartily.
"We have been listening too closely to the tales of the peasants 'round these parts!" said the knight called Sagremor. "Forgive us, my lady. We shall be off."
With that, Sagremor disappeared into a thicket on the far side of the lawn as Dodinas, with a courteous salute, spurred his horse into a nearby orchard. Once the sound of his horse's hooves had died away, Meleri nudged the rabbit, which had curled up and apparently fallen asleep between her feet.
"It is safe to go now, little friend," she said, and the rabbit quickly scurried away back into the brambles. Sighing, Meleri closed her book and started walking back to Gaiholm Keep.
Meanwhile, some 400 miles to the south, Sir Herringdale was at Devizes Castle in the northwest portion of Salisbury County. He had been summoned there by his lord Earl Robert, who was in residence there for several weeks. Herringdale had just arrived, somewhat travelsore after two days' riding across the plains of his homeland, and was waiting patiently for Robert to welcome him into his chambers for an audience.
Although he had brought a retinue of two of his household knights, Sir Aedan and Sir Tewdrig, he waited alone, standing silently in the middle of the castle's great hall, its mighty rafters hung with the banners of Robert and his court. Some of the Earl's dogs napped near the warm embers of the hall's fire pit, but their heads picked up at the sound of a gaggle of ladies of the court, handmaidens to Robert's mother Countess Ellen, as they moved through the hall, hugging the tapestried wall, giggling and casting Herringdale looks. As ever, he found these women of the court - who never seemed to age, unlike their mistress, the Countess - as irritating as midges on a hot summer's afternoon. He heaved a heavy sigh as he was subjected to their nervous glances, and he couldn't help but overhear their idle gossip and chatter.
"That Sir Sagremor is certainly a dashing fellow," said one. "Can you imagine Dodinas daring to challenge him? Sagremor is just so civilized. Don’t you just love his Greek accent?"
"Accent! What about his deeds!? On the quest he fought every foe first, dashing right into combat here and there. He defeated Saxons, outlaw knights, and bandits with equal ease. And he’s so handsome! He is so eager to fight that everyone is calling him 'le Desirous.'"
"Except for Sir Kay," interjected another. "He's calls him 'le mort jeune' because he's always moping about some unrequited love. That Sir Kay is such a wag! Oh, I wish the Earl had taken us to King Arthur's court this year!"
"Say what you will either way, Dodinas is the dashing one, if you ask me. Hervis, Brastias...all those old knights" - here Herringdale sensed every eye in the gossiping gaggle turned upon him as they moved past - "have long proved themselves competent. But Dodinas tugs at my heartstrings. I love those dark Welsh eyes. All these young knights, you know, are like that. They are not just good fighters like the old men" - "Old men?" thought Herringdale - "but are so gallant, too. Nicely dressed, clean fingernails, and such splendid clothing!"
The gaggle moved through a door and their chatter quickly faded away. Herringdale looked at his hands, cracked and veined.
"My fingernails are clean," he thought to himself, then started as Robert's herald called for him.
"Ah, Marshall Herringdale," said Robert as he entered the Earl's chambers. Robert was seated on his sumptuous bed draped in robes of crushed velvet. A harper picked out a gentle melody from a sun-dappled window bench nearby. In the darker recesses of the room, several knights stood about, talking in hushed tones which Robert seemed not to notice.
"My lord," said Herringdale, bowing deeply. "I have come in answer to your summons."
"Very good," said Robert, smiling broadly. "I have a task for you. I have set my mind on marriage this year and I would like you to take the news to the Baron of Uffington. His daughter Katherine is to be my bride."
Before Herringdale could answer, a knight strode forward into the light. Herringdale immediately recognized his contemporary Sir Lycus, the old attack dog, now steward of Vagon Castle and Robert's constable of late.
"My lord, I must again raise my objections!" said Lycus, his sagging features flushed with agitation. "To dispatch our most capable war leader" - he gave a nod to Herringdale - "at a time when there are reports of Saxon raiders moving along the border through Silchester..."
"As I have said before, let Ulfius send his army against the Saxons," said Robert with an impatient wave of his hand. "If he requires my assistance, he can send for it. Besides, the Saxons have been cowed in the wake of our High King taking the throne. They will never again threaten us as seriously as they did during the dark days after Uther's death."
"With all due respect, m'lord," said Lycus through gritted teeth, "I was fighting the Saxon hordes when you were still at your mother's teat and I know how treacherous they can be."
Herringdale held up a hand to silence the impetuous Lycus before he went too far. The news that Saxons were again raiding the countryside troubled him greatly. Despite Robert's assurances, like Lycus he knew only too well the ways of the barbarians, and that to meet their provocations with passivity would only bring greater aggression on their part.
"My lord," he said, trying to keep his voice even, "I believe Sir Lycus gives good counsel."
[Des rolled Herringdale's Hate (Saxons) versus his Loyalty (Lord). Unsurprisingly, the Hate passion won out.]
Robert made a noise of annoyance and rose to begin pacing his chamber, hands clasped behind his back.
"Very well!" he said at last. "Sir Lycus: take a banner of knights and ride for Silchester. Seek for news of these supposed raiders and consult with Duke Ulfius. Sir Herringdale: ride for Uffington with my marriage offer. If Sir Lycus brings back news of war, then I shall summon you back to Sarum for the muster."
As there were still some hours of daylight remaining, Herringdale left immediately, wishing Sir Lycus luck as he did so. He met up with Sir Aedan and Sir Tewdrig in the bailey and soon the trio of knights and their squires were riding cross-country, making for the road that would take them north into Marlborough and on to the Vale of the White Horse, wherein resided the Baron of Uffington. Herringdale rode along largely in silence, brooding on his lord's rash behavior and on the handmaiden's gossip. This younger generation and their strange ways...
That night, staying at the residence of his vassal, Sir Pedrag of Upavon, Herringdale sat alone, silently ruminating on the changing world as he stared out his chamber's window towards the setting sun. He started when he heard a voice at his ear.
"Every change can be a disaster if you see only its dark face, but the world moves from darkness to light and into darkness again, changing always and forever."
It was Merlin, his bushy beard now flecked with gray, the lenses of his round spectacles flashing red in the reflected light of the sun. Herringdale didn't bother to ask what the old sorcerer was doing in Upavon or how he had entered his room undetected.
"We live in a time of that change," Merlin continued. "As the earth turns, a great transformation is taking place. The magic and miracles of the land are growing active. The wonders of the land will continue to grow.
"The world is making itself ready for us, revealing the wonders and horrors of the magic that underlies it. These events will continue, each bringing a challenge of greater proportions until it reveals the greatest of all quests, after which all the parts of the world will become whole again."
"When will this occur?" Herringdale asked, his blood racing at such a startling pronouncement.
"I do not foresee you taking part in this quest, Sir Herringdale," said Merlin gravely. "You have played your part in setting the stage, and soon it will be time to step aside and allow the new generations to play their parts."
Herringdale looked back towards the setting sun, his jaw set. He could see Merlin reflected in the glass, flashing him an infuriatingly sardonic grin. Herringdale turned back, ready to spit a few choice words at the enchanter, only to find him no longer there. Had it all been an apparition, a daydream?
The remainder of the journey to Uffington passed uneventfully. Herringdale still nurtured pleasant memories of the last time he had passed through Uffington during his ill-fated trip to Rydychan. After riding up into the hills that overlooked the sweeping plains below, he was received at the residence of the Baron of Uffington, a manor house nestled snugly in the Lambourne Downs. Predictably, Herringdale was warmly welcomed by the Baron, who was greatly pleased to be hosting such an esteemed knight yet again. A feast was laid out for Herringdale and his knights, who ate and drank merrily. The threat of Saxon raids seemed far off and of little concern in the Baron's convivial hall.
As the sun began to set outside and the last course was cleared away, Herringdale got down to business.
"Your lordship, I have come at the behest of Earl Robert with a request," Herringdale said. "He wishes to marry this year, and he has chosen your daughter Katherine as his bride."
The Baron's already pleasantly smiling face split into a wide grin.
"But this is most welcome news!" he boomed, practically jumping out of his chair. "Of course, of course! Let us send messengers to your lord at once with my reply. He must come here to Uffington as my guest! Please, stay on and enjoy my hospitality until your lord arrives."
Herringdale assented to stay on - at least, he thought to himself, until he heard something about the Saxon situation in Silchester, if anything. Over the following week, Herringdale enjoyed the hospitality of the Baron and was introduced to his daughter, the Lady Katherine. He recognized her as the young lady who had complimented the Earl's clothes at a royal feast a couple years ago. He remembered the incident well, for it was one of the first times he had been overlooked in favor of a younger knight. The memory still rankled a bit, but he was courteous to Katherine in her father's hall.
Katherine, for her part, seemed neither elated nor saddened by the news of her impending nuptials. She ate at her father's table, making pleasant and light conversation when addressed but otherwise keeping dutifully silent. The night before Robert's arrival, however, the Baron confided in Herringdale that Katherine had, for the past month or two, been dispatching and receiving messages with some regularity.
"I never learned my letters," said the Baron, "but I wouldn't have read them anyway. I try to give Katherine her privacy ever since her mother died. But now I know who she's been corresponding with, eh?" he said with a jovial wink.
"So it would seem," said Herringdale, sipping his ale and staring into the roaring fire. He had other things on his mind; although he had yet to receive official word, thanks to his mastery of Intrigue some rumors had reached his ears that the Saxon raiding party - which was claimed to have originated out of Wessex - was making its way north from Silchester, which would take it directly towards the Lambourne Downs!
The next day Earl Robert arrived with his full retinue in tow. As always, it was an impressive sight: the Earl and his entourage of 12 knights, their multitude of squires and pages, heralds, stewards, cooks, servants, musicians, and others, all riding up to Uffington in a long, sinewy line, dozens of colorful banners and standards fluttering among the sea of lances and spears. Soon the Baron's modest manor had been turned into a small village as the Earl's retinue erected tents on the grounds outside.
In the manor's hall, meanwhile, Earl Robert was being warmly received by the Baron and his supplicating staff. Gifts were given, backs were slapped, and much good will was expressed. At last the Baron sent for his daughter. Earl Robert, it was plain to see, could hardly wait to lay his eyes once again upon his bride-to-be.
Some minutes passed. Then, with a great cry, Lady Katherine's handmaiden came rushing into the hall, her cheeks streaked with tears, her eyes wide with fright.
"The Lady Katherine - she is gone!" cried the girl, who promptly fainted. As she was being revived, Herringdale hurried to Katherine's chambers to investigate, Robert and Baron Uffington hot on his heels. Katherine's room was on the ground floor, and when Herringdale entered he found little to raise suspicions of kidnapping. The furniture was all in order and there was no sign of a struggle. The room's single window had been propped open, but as it was a beautiful summer day this did not seem unusual. Nevertheless, as Robert and the Baron fretted and blustered, Herringdale stepped over to the window and took a close look at the sill.
Sure enough, there was a bit of fresh mud on the wood. Leaning his head out, he could see several boot prints in the soft earth below the window. He strode over to Katherine's writing desk. In a box, he found a bundle of letters. The words were written in an untidy scrawl, hardly that of a scribe or learned person.
"Send for your clerk and your daughter's handmaiden," Herringdale told the Baron.
Katherine's handmaiden had been successfully revived and was soon sitting on her mistress's bed, her eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot.
"Do you recognize these letters?" Herringdale asked.
"Aye, sir," said the girl. "M'lady received one a week or thereabouts. She'd never tell me who they were from, but they always cheered her greatly."
Herringdale turned to Robert. "Are these from you, my lord?"
Robert didn't even have to look at them. "Certainly not!"
The Baron looked shocked, but Herringdale turned to the clerk. "Can you read these?"
The clerk looked over the letters, his brow furrowed. "These are not written in the common vernacular, nor in Latin," he said. "I believe, m'lord, that this is some sort of code or cypher. I could try and figure it out, but without a key it may take some time."
"Time is not a luxury we can afford!" said the Baron tersely, snatching the letters from the clerk's hand.
"Indeed not!" said Robert, his cheeks flushed. "It is obvious that my bride has been hoodwinked, lured away to her doom. We must raise an army! We must find the varlets that took her and make them pay!"
"To arms!" cried the Baron as he rushed from the room. Herringdale approached Earl Robert, laying a consoling hand on his shoulder. Not daring to voice his own suspicions of Katherine's motivations in such a highly charged environment, he instead said, "My lord, allow me to ride after the Lady Katherine and her abductors. Raising a force of men will take time, even if you rode out with just the men in your entourage. I can take my household knights and be off within the quarter hour."
"My faithful Marshall," said Robert, patting Herringdale's hand. "Ride forth with your men and seek for my lady. I shall be following behind in due course with a great host, as many as the Baron and I can muster. Win her back if you can. If not, return to me and report on her captor's position that we may take them in battle."
Herringdale departed with a bow, and went to fetch Sir Aedan and Sir Tewdrig. True to his word, they were mounted and ready to ride within 15 minutes. Putting his superior Hunting skill to good use, Herringdale picked up the trail from outside Katherine's window and followed it up into the wilds of the Downs.
They followed the trail all day but caught no sight of their quarry.
"The Lady Katherine must have fled her chambers early, perhaps even before dawn," Herringdale mused as the sun began to set.
"Fled, my lord?" asked Tewdrig.
"Indeed," said Herringdale. "I do not for one instant believe she was kidnapped or hoodwinked. She left of her own accord, and gladly."
Briefly, painfully, he recalled his own experience with a wife who fled into the night with a secret lover. He banished the thought from his head and led his men on towards finding a place to camp for the night. They settled in on a hill overlooking a great white horse carved into the side of a facing hillside, the namesake of the White Horse Vale through which they rode.
[In preparing this adventure, I was most looking forward to this part of it: the hunt through the White Horse Vale. I drafted up a little encounter chart and laid out the conditions for finding Katherine. Every day Herringdale would have to make a Hunting roll at a -5. Success would net a roll on the encounter chart, failure a roll with a +5 modifer (as the higher results were more dire of consequence), a fumble would result in losing the trail, and only on a critical success would he find Katherine. For every three days that passed, a further penalty would be added to the Hunting roll. The first day was an ordinary success that netted "No Event" on the encounter table. The second day, Des preceded to roll a Critical. Blast! I had some really nifty encounters lined up on that chart. Ah well, save 'em for another time, I suppose.]
Herringdale caught a whiff of wood smoke on the air as noonday approached. Signalling his men to dismount, he proceeded on foot with Aedan and Tewdrig, leaving the squires with the horses, up a wooded hillside. As they reached the crest of the hill, they found themselves looking down upon the ruins of a Roman country estate. Camped around the villa was a Saxon raiding party! Armored barbarian warriors strolled, shouted, and sat in amongst a chaotic mass of woolen tents and campfires. Herringdale estimated there were at least four dozen Saxons in the encampment.
Closer to, about halfway up the hill slope, stood two sentries, chatting lazily and leaning on their two-handed axes. Silently, Herringdale motioned for his companions to follow him back from where they came. Once he felt they'd gone far enough, he spoke.
"You two return to the squires and wait. I shall make a circuit of the camp and probe for weaknesses and see if Lady Katherine travels with these barbarians. Once I've done that, I'll return to you."
Tewdrig and Aedan nodded that they understood and headed off into the woods. Herringdale began making his way in the opposite direction, trying to keep the hill between himself and the encampment. Unfortunately [rolling a Fumble on his Hunting roll] Herringdale missed a step and suddenly found himself falling forward, down a steep drop that had been concealed by a thicket of ivy. With a crash, he landed at the bottom of the escarpment - and found himself looking up into the surprised faces of a patrol of Saxons!
With a cry, Herringdale unsheathed his sword and dove into their midst, his sword hewing left and right. Inspired by his Hatred of the Saxon invaders, he laid two down before they quite knew what was happening. The Saxons converged on him, but their blows were turned aside by his shield and mail. Herringdale gave much better than he received, slashing limbs and shearing throats with his deadly blade. Soon, five foes lay dead at his feet and the two survivors had thrown down their arms, begging for their miserable lives.
Herringdale stood over the Saxon curs, breathing heavily, his eyes flashing. But he mastered his rage; these dogs were of more use to him right now alive. Flicking the blood from his blade, he ordered the Saxons to stand and lead him to the camp. They did so, following a nearly invisible trail through the woods. Soon Herringdale again found himself looking down on the camp, this time from the vantage opposite to where he'd originally looked.
"Who dwells within the villa?" Herringdale asked, noting woodfire smoke rising from the ruins.
"Prince Cynric and his bride," said one of the Saxons in his barbaric accent.
Cynric! Scion of King Cerdic of Wessex, Herringdale remembered his piggish face haunting the halls of Countess Ellen during the uncertain years after the death of Uther. Herringdale thought for a bit, then said to the Saxons, "Go down to your master and tell him that I would parley. Tell him an army marches against him and that this is his chance to avoid bloodshed."
He didn't particularly care about the lives of the Saxons, but if he could spare Katherine's life through his actions, it was worth a shot. Herringdale watched as the Saxons made their way down the ivy-covered hill towards the camp. Their arrival clearly stirred some alarm, as only two men from the patrol were coming back. But the pair did not pause to answer their compatriots' questions, making straight for the villa instead. They disappeared inside and some minutes passed.
When they reappeared, they were not in the company of Prince Cynric but rather the Lady Katherine! She walked through the camp with her guard, but stopped at the base of the hill and spoke to them. They appeared to argue with her for a moment, but she silenced them, then turned and began walking up the hill unescorted, her skirts lifted daintily as she picked her way through the ivy. Herringdale emerged from the trees as she approached. Sensing treachery, he signaled for her to halt when she was ten feet away.
"Why have you come here?" he asked her.
"I have come to ask you to leave me in peace," Katherine responded. "I know who sent you, and I would have you return and tell him and my father that I have chosen my husband for myself. I shall not ally myself to a dying culture. The Saxons are the future of Britain, and once they have cast down the banner of the so-called 'High King' they shall assume their rightful rule!"
Herringdale stood impassively, listening to Katherine's rant. His head was racing, overwhelmed with memories of Lady Elaine and her betrayal. Here it was happening all over again. He knew how this story ended. He felt nothing but pity in his heart for Katherine, for Robert. He nodded sadly as Katherine finished her speech.
"Very well, my lady," he said. "I will leave you in peace, but I cannot guarantee that my lord the Earl will do the same."
"I am sure the Prince can stand up to whatever my father cares to send against him," said Katherine.
Herringdale withheld further comment, instead bowing and departing back into the woods. As he made his way back to his waiting men, he felt dazed by this brush with ghosts of his past. He felt utterly powerless and futile, much as he had when Elaine had betrayed him. He knew there was no use in trying to convince Katherine to change her mind, and he only hoped he could employ the weight of his own experience in convincing Robert of this.
He spoke little to his men when he returned, and rode mostly in silence down from the hills. As the day was growing long, he caught sight of the pursuing force making its way up out of Uffington, the banners of the Baron and the Earl flying at the head of the column.
As Herringdale rode towards the eschille, Robert signaled a halt and he and the Baron rode forth, their faces eager.
"You have located her, then?" asked the Earl excitedly.
"I have," said Herringdale.
"And...?" asked the Baron anxiously.
"She is in the company of Prince Cynric of Wessex and a raiding force of some 60 to 80 warriors."
"Kidnapped by Saxons?" Robert fumed. "They will pay for this treachery!"
"I fear she was not kidnapped," said Herringdale gravely. "She travels of her own accord."
"Surely not!" said Robert, apalled. "You spoke to her?"
"I did. And I let her go," said Herringdale.
"You did what!?" asked both noblemen simultaneously.
"How do you explain this treasonous behavior, Marshall?" asked Robert, his face red.
"My lord, if you are contemplating riding in pursuit, I implore you to listen to reason," said Herringdale. "We are powerless in the face of the lady's decision. She has made up her mind, and there is nothing you can do to change that."
"She has been taken in, it is as simple as that. Perhaps Cynric has employed a Saxon sorcerer..." said Robert, hardly listening.
"My lord, please," said Herringdale, and there was a real note of urgency in his voice now. "Even if you were to win her back from Cynric, her sympathies would not lie with you. She would be a spy in your court, a Saxon sympathizer who would stab you in the back at the earliest opportunity."
Robert fixed Herringdale with a cagey expression. "Ah yes, just like your own wife, eh? I have heard the tales, sir. I tell you now, I do not worry for myself, for I have done nothing so shameful that would drive my wife into the arms of another and cause her to plot my downfall."
A long moment of silence passed. Herringdale's jaw clenched and unclenched.
"You are dismissed, Marshall," said Robert at last. "You may return to Du Plain castle. The Baron and I will see to the mission you failed to complete."
With a salute, Herringdale wheeled his horse around and rode away without a further word. Aedan and Tewdrig rode with him, but no one spoke. Little was said over the remainder of the journey. By the time the party returned to Du Plain Castle, word had already arrived that Prince Cynric had met Robert's force in battle and been defeated, and that Lady Katherine had been recovered. The subsequent wedding at Sarum was attended by many of the great lords of the south, but Herringdale was not among them. He sat in his hall at Du Plain, brooding on his lord's decision, the rise of the Saxons, and his diminished position within the county.
Late in the year, word came that Eburacum itself had fallen to a Saxon army out of Deira and that Arthur and his army had engaged the army outside of Lincoln at the Battle of Humber. Despite being victorious in the field, Arthur had retired south to London for the winter in the face of a second Saxon army landing on the northern coast.
"War is coming," Herringdale told his knights as the first snow of the year was falling outside his hall. "And I am once again standing alone," he muttered, as they departed.
[I really enjoyed running this year, as it's been a while since I've run a scenario of my own creation. Perhaps it had something to do with having recently watched Wrath of Khan, but I designed the Katherine scenario as a bit of a 'no-win' situation. I think Des handled it well. We discussed whether Herringdale should lose Honor for his actions, but in the end I decided against it since he didn't directly contradict Robert's orders. In the end, a lot of this year was about planting seeds not only for the next couple years, but for some themes I hope to touch upon in years to come.]