The main source of Saxon trouble had shifted north, to the domains north of Lindsey. Although Arthur's army had driven off the force besieging Eburacum, he had been forced to withdraw at the approach of a second Saxon army. Retiring to London for the winter, Arthur issued a general summons to raise a great army to return north and crush the Saxons there.
Herringdale did not attend Arthur's Christmas court, preferring to stay by his own fire. Still, despite his glum mood and his isolation, there was little news that did not reach his ears. He noted the addition of eight new knights to the Round Table order: four "Old Knights" of his generation (Uriens, Lak, Hervis, and Galagers) and four "New Knights" of the upcoming generation (Gawaine, Griflet, Kay, and Tor). He also received warmly the news that these so-called New Knights and many of their compatriots had all been jousted down by King Pellinore, who had come to London in disguise to show the brash upstarts their place.
"A shame I missed that," Herringdale muttered after his loyal jongleur troupe had delivered the news.
More news came as winter turned towards spring in the form of a tersely-worded missive bearing the seal of Earl Robert. The message informed Herringdale that, in his capacity as Marshall of the county of Salisbury, he would be in charge of keeping the peace and overseeing matters of low justice while the Earl was on campaign with the High King. The message was clear: Robert was marching to war and glory at Arthur's side, and Herringdale wasn't invited.
The snub did not come as a surprise, and Herringdale set to work in discharging his duties as best he could. In May, as soon as he received word that Robert had departed Sarum with a company of 30 knights and 1500 footmen, Herringdale began making plans to ride patrol around the county over the summer, visiting Salisbury's castles each in turn and administering to the needs of the locals along the way. Leaving a garrison of four household knights at Du Plain, he rode out under sweeping summer skies in the company of his most loyal retainers, Sir Aedan and Sir Tewdrig, along with their entourage of squires, including his own faithful Baldrick.
The trio first made for Sarum, where Herringdale held court for a month, seeing to county matters and local administrative duties. They then headed south, stopping first in the fortified city of Wilton, then on to Ebble, where Herringdale stayed a fortnight as the guest of his old friend and vassal, Sir Leo. From there, he proceeded to Vagon Castle, being held in stewardship for Sir Tewdrig, the son of its late lord Sir Elad. After a stay of a week to administer to the business of the west country, Herringdale took his entourage north to Devizes Castle.
Near that storied eminence, he encountered a young peasant with a scraggly beard and panicked air.
"Please, my lord! My goat has gone missing!"
Herringdale guided his horse over to the peasant's goat pen.
"He was just here, but now he's gone missing!" said the peasant excitedly. Herringdale noted a trio of grubby-faced children watching from the peasant's mud and thatch hovel. "The gate remains closed - I don't where he could be!"
Herringdale, for perhaps the first time ever, reflected on the peasant's lot in life. To lose a single goat would surely be the ruin of this man and his family. Herringdale briefly thought about how just this past winter he had casually ordered the slaughter of a Yuletide goat for the amusement of his twin six-year-old daughters, Feliette and Feunette. Touched by the miserable wretch's plight, he consented to help find the animal.
It was no challenge to Herringdale's superior hunting abilities to find the goat, which was peacefully munching a hawthorne bush not far from its pen. How it had escaped remained a mystery, but Herringdale returned it to its grateful owner and was cheered down the road by the peasant's children.
The remainder of Herringdale's circuit of the county was uneventful. Having visited several manors along the sparsely-populated eastern border with Silchester and determining all was well, he traced his way south along narrow back roads, making his way from the Bourne River valley towards his own lands. Summer was turning to fall by now, and he was looking forward to overseeing the harvest. He was also curious if any news had come in of Arthur's war in the north.
It was the first evening of September when he crested the rise that swept down towards his ancestral manor, Broughton Hall. Now under the stewardship of his eldest unmarried daughter, Lady Meleri, it stood proudly, its lead roof gleaming dully in the setting sun's light. He thought he might stop and spend a couple days here if his notoriously fiery daughter would have him.
Fortunately [with a successful Love (Family) roll on Meleri's part] Herringdale found his daughter in a congenial mood and pleased to welcome her father into her hall. He joined Meleri and the manor's steward, the aging and somewhat senile Sir Loren, at the high table for a hearty supper that evening. The next day Sir Loren suggested spending some time out in the woods with the hawks.
"A splendid idea!" said Herringdale, who never went anywhere without his gyrfalcon, Hercules.
Setting out with Aedan and Tewdrig (who took falcons from the manor's well-stocked rookery) and a band of beaters to help flush game, the knights engaged in a leisurely day of hawking. Unfortunately, the game seemed strangely sparse and as the day wore on the party found itself mostly riding and chatting, only occasionally sending their birds after a startled flock of grouse. It was getting late and Herringdale's thoughts were turning towards returning to Broughton. They were riding near the edge of the woods and Herringdale could just make out the Hall on the other side of wide pastures and cherry orchards.
"Sir!" Aedan shouted, pointing towards a starling that had taken wing.
"Go, Hercules!" cried Herringdale as he loosed his falcon. Avidly, he watched it as it soared at lightning speed towards the east, winging low over a bank of trees. It approached its quarry - then dropped from the sky in a puff of feathers, an arrow buried in its breast.
"Who dares--?" Herringdale roared, but his shout of alarm died in his throat. From the woods where Hercules had gone down, a wall of Saxons was emerging! As they came out into the open, they began chanting and beating their shields with their spears and axes.
"Look!" This time it was Tewdrig and he was pointing north towards Broughton Hall. Smoke was curling from the vicinity - the wolves were already within the fold! Herringdale spotted a half-dozen Saxon lords on ponies galloping from the woods, making for the bridge and toll house that led to the manor proper.
"GO!" Herringdale ordered, drawing his sword. The four knights rode pell-mell for the bridge, hoping to cut the Saxon riders off as their beaters scattered into the woods, fleeing the oncoming Saxon infantry. The knights just made the bridge ahead of the Saxons.
"Ride on to the manor, I'll hold them!" Herringdale shouted. His retainers obeyed immediately. Reining his horse around, Herringdale faced his foes. The bridge was only wide enough to permit three riders at a time. As the first wave pressed in, Herringdale's sword lashed out...and three bodies fell into the creek, lifeless.
[This was seriously the most jaw-dropping moment I've seen in any Pendragon campaign: Herringdale of course invoked his Hate (Saxons) passion, so his Sword skill was boosted to 32. Des split this into three attacks at 11, 11, and 10. She rolled the first opponent: 11 - Crit! The next opponent: another 11 - another Crit! Finally, she rolled a 10 - another Crit!! Two of the Saxons also made their rolls, but with hot double damage rolls their extra shield bonus hardly made a difference. Technically I think only one Saxon was killed outright, but the other two were so grievously wounded they were out of the fight in one round.]
As the riderless ponies fled in fear, the other three riders pressed in, hatred burning in their eyes. These gave considerably better than their departed comrades, and Herringdale was pressed back, taking a wound in the process. Armored only in hunting leathers and with no shield, he was much more vulnerable and he suddenly felt it. The most richly-accoutered of the Saxons tried to skewer him, but missed and buried his spear in the wooden bridge. Cursing, he drew a sword and, putting all his force into the strike, thrust the blade forward.
Herringdale felt the cold steel sinking into the soft flesh of his torso just above his left leg. A jolt of pain shot through him as he nearly blacked out. He felt the sensation of falling, then of the wooden bridge beneath him. Blood pooling, his left leg numb, he planted his sword in the bridge in an effort to lever himself back into a standing position.
"Stay down, Marshall," said the Saxon who had wounded him. Herringdale recognized the thickly-accented voice beneath the helmet from his many visits to the court of Countess Ellen during the dark days of anarchy before the coming of the High King: it was Prince Cynric of Wessex!
"Never, cur!" said Herringdale through gritted teeth. Cynric's booted heel lashed out and connected with Herringdale's head, knocking him down again.
"Come," said Cynric curtly. He rode back towards his advancing lines, his bodyguards riding alongside. As the Saxons rode away, Herringdale heard hoofbeats coming up behind him. As he began to swoon from blood loss, he felt himself being lifted into Baldrick's saddle; he was borne back to the fortified manor house as the Saxons set fire to the village and orchard.
[Herringdale didn't pass out from his Major Wound, and with his high Valorous he would have kept fighting, likely to his doom. I figured there was a chance Cynric would feel indebted to Herringdale for allowing Lady Katherine to go with him the previous year (even if she was eventually taken back by force courtesy of Robert). I rolled his Honor and made it. If they meet again, Cynric will consider the debt repaid...]
Herringdale was borne into the yard of Broughton Hall amidst a scene of total chaos. Advance Saxon scouts armed with flaming brands had managed to set fire to a portion of the manor's palisade wall and the fire had spread to the neighboring barn. The manor staff were running to and fro, fetching water buckets and frantically trying to douse the flames as the sky overhead turned to indigo, night approaching quickly.
Meleri was there to meet her father, her flaming red hair matching the flames consuming the barn. She led Aedan and Tewdrig into the hall as they carried their lord, now pale and sweating, blood dripping steadily from his wound. She directed he be laid on the high table and disappeared to the kitchen, quickly returning with her arms laden with pestles, wooden bowls, and a roll of cheesecloth.
Working quickly, she saw to her father's wounds, stopping the bleeding with her herbal poultices and administering a tea that calmed Herringdale and allowed him some rest despite the anarchic scene outside. Satisfied she had done what she could, she headed out into the courtyard. The fire had been largely contained by this point; the barn was a mess of charred timbers, but the thick palisade was still standing, although several of its logs were nearly burned through and the whole section of burned wall was sagging precariously.
"Take some of the spare timbers from the crawl space above the stables," Meleri ordered, "and buttress the wall."
A half-dozen men snapped into action. Wiping her sweaty brow, Meleri considered her situation. With her father out of action, there were but three knights with their squires and 12 footmen armed with spears and bows to defend the manor against a mighty horde of Saxons. Sir Aedan appeared at her side.
"How many Saxons did you see, sir?" she asked.
"Several hundred count," he replied grimly. "I fear we will not be able to hold against a determined assault."
Meleri nodded tersely. She watched as the damaged wall was reinforced, then ordered her footmen into positions along the palisade. From outside the walls, the approach of the Saxons was signaled by the increasing sound of their infernal war drums and barbaric chants. Meleri could see a thick column of black smoke rising high into the sky from the direction of the village.
She re-entered the hall and tended to her father. He was weak and barely conscious. His face looked pale and lined and he looked very old. Outside, the chanting and drumming continued unabated. Meleri caught sight of her two children, including young Loholt, all of six years of age and already betraying a marked relationship to his regal father, watching nervously from the door to their bedchamber.
"Sir Loren," Meleri said, "see to my children." The ancient knight nodded and toddled off, saluting the kids with an overly enthusiastic greeting. Seeing her children had upped the stakes of defeat for Meleri. The time for heroic last stands would come another day - now she had to get her beloveds to safety.
"We must make ready to escape," she told her steward, Pedrag. He knew what she meant: the secret tunnel installed by Herringdale against just such an eventuality. Entering through a cleverly disguised trapdoor in the pantry, the tunnel went under the manor's moat and emerged a half-mile away in the middle of a thick copse of trees. Pedrag departed to signal the news.
Soon Aedan and Tewdrig, who had been on watch outside, entered. "Pedrag has told us of your plan," said Aedan. "It is indeed advisable, considering the circumstances." He looked sadly at Herringdale's prostrate form. "There is only one problem."
"Which is?" asked Meleri.
Suddenly, the chanting and drumming stopped abruptly. The trio froze, tense and waiting. A minute passed. Then the drumming started up again. Shaking off his tension, Aedan continued.
"Pedrag tells me the tunnel extends only a half-mile. It's hard to see from the ramparts into the darkness, but it's quite possible there are several hundred Saxons surrounding us. I don't think a half-mile is enough distance to take us past their lines."
"What then do you advise?" asked Meleri.
"It is cutting things fine, but I think we must wait until they launch an assault. Their attention will be focused on taking the manor, it may give you a chance to slip past."
"I do not want to wait to go through the trapdoor until the last minute," said Meleri. "We shall start sending people down into the tunnel immediately, but we will wait to emerge at the other end until..."
Aedan gave her meaningful nod. And so the evacuation of Broughton Hall began. First the non-combatant staff and family, including Meleri's children and a weakly protesting Herringdale, were taken down into the tunnel, led by Sir Loren. That left just Aedan and Tewdrig and the squires along with the dozen archers manning the palisades.
"Come, my lady," said Sir Tewdrig, offering his hand and nodding towards the trapdoor.
"Wait," said Meleri, "if we take the archers off the walls too soon, the Saxons might guess what we're up to."
"I will see to that," said Sir Aedan. "You go with Sir Tewdrig. We drew lots, and I will be the last to follow."
Nodding, Meleri allowed herself to be led down the trapdoor. The low, cramped tunnel was moldy and damp, its sweating walls gleaming in Tewdrig's guttering candle light. After five minutes of walking, they reached the foot of a set of stairs that led up to the tunnel exit. There waited those who had come before. Over the next half-hour, the footmen and squires began arriving in ones and twos. They all came armed but without helmets or jerkins.
They explained how Sir Aedan was setting up straw dummies to take their place along the palisade so as not to tip off the Saxons. At last, Aedan's squire arrived.
"Sir Aedan says to go ahead," he announced tearfully.
"What do you mean?" Meleri asked sharply.
"He says he will bait the Saxons into attacking..." said the squire as Meleri pushed past him, hurrying back down the tunnel.
"My lady, no!" called Tewdrig, but Meleri ignored him. She hustled down the tunnel and soon came to the trapdoor in the pantry. Cautiously, she pushed it up, peaking out. The kitchen was eerily quiet. Creeping forth, she entered the hall - and now she could hear the sound of shouting and ringing steel clearly coming from within the manor's yard outside. Whispering a blessing for the doomed Sir Aedan, Meleri slipped back into the secret tunnel, making sure to bolt the trapdoor behind her.
[It was an interesting experience to see Des switch from playing a character with a Valorous of 18 to one with a Valorous of 2. Clearly the upcoming years with Meleri at the helm will be marked by much greater discretion!]
She emerged at the far end of the tunnel into air thick with the acrid smell of smoke. Through the screen of trees that kept them safe from observation, she could see the flickering golden flames that were greedily consuming her family home. The sounds of Saxon yells could also be heard, uncomfortably near.
"They have by now realized our deception," whispered Tewdrig. "Come."
With Tewdrig and Simon the Smith carrying Herringdale, the party slipped off into the dark woods. Soon the smoke cleared and the sounds of rough Saxon shouts faded. They walked on, their path illuminated by the sparse moonlight filtering down through the boughs overhead. Meleri guided them west, hoping against hope that Buckholt, the next manor over, still stood.
Shortly before dawn Meleri, with a sigh of relief, caught sight of the manor belonging to her bastard uncle, Sir Maurel. Taking hold of her childrens' hands, she led her party up to the manor house, situated on a small hillock overlooking the surrounding fields.
They were admitted immediately and Sir Maurel, wrapped in a fur blanket, listened with increasing alarm to Meleri's tale of woe. He immediately mobilized his household for evacuation and within a half-hour the entire settlement, both manor and village, was walking west along the Sarum road. Herringdale had been placed in the back of a two-wheeled wain, and those that had horses and could ride did, but most trudged along on foot.
Despite their slow progress due to taking along children and the elderly, their pre-dawn start allowed the party to reach Sarum by the end of the following day. By the time they caught sight of the mighty walled city sitting proudly upon its massive hill that rose like a rock of security from the Salisbury Plain, their procession had more than tripled in size as the residents of every manor and village they passed during their journey quickly joined in the flight to safety, bringing their herds and meager possessions along with them.
Once inside the keep, and only after seeing that her father was being looked after, did Meleri consent to lie down atop a pile of furs in an alcove of the great hall of Sarum Castle. She was asleep before she knew it.
Some days passed. News came from the west and south of invading Saxons as the streets of Sarum filled with refugees. Many of the remaining knights of the county also arrived, anxious to seek counsel with Herringdale, who was still bed-ridden. In light of his condition, Herringdale conferred his powers as Marshall to Sir Lycus, captain of the guard at Sarum. A picture began to emerge of the Saxon lines as they advanced towards Sarum. Word came that Ebble had fallen, that Du Plain was besieged, as was Burcombe, the last real line of defense before Sarum's own walls.
And so it was to Sir Lycus that, a week after Herringdale's arrival, a messenger from Prince Cyrnic of Wessex brought his message. Meleri, hearing of the approach of a Saxon messenger, quickly excused herself. By now she had been given a curtained chamber just off the main hall, and here she quickly checked her reflection in a polished silver mirror. She also took a small soapstone vial from the meager pile of belongings she'd managed to flee with. She then headed down a flight of stairs to the buttery, where she summoned a kitchen nave to prepare three goblets of mead.
She emerged into the great hall a few minutes later bearing the goblets on a tray. The Saxon messenger, wearing a rich fur cloak and flashing a wolfish smile, was speaking to Sir Lycus, who looked on with undisguised contempt.
"My lord Prince Cynric bids me bring you a message on behalf of his royal personage and that of his father, the exalted King Cerdic: Salisbury is fallen. Surrender now and it will go easier on you. We have taken Ebble Castle and Du Plain Castle. The King has taken Levcomagus and Silchester. The bretwalda Aelle of Sussex would have it known that this island is not big enough for two High Kings. Once your own returns from his northern wanderings, we will send him away along with any who dare support him."
Sir Lycus rose, furious. He was about to speak when Meleri stepped forward.
"We Britons pride ourselves on our hospitality," she said, choking back the bile and managing a brilliant smile. The Saxon looked her up and down, quite openly appraising her looks. He smiled back. Encouraged, Meleri continued. "We would very much like to share our best vintage of mead with you on behalf of your lord," she continued.
Sir Lycus stared, somewhat dumbstruck. Meleri turned and proffered the tray to him, winking so the Saxon couldn't see. Her eyes then flashed towards the cup on the left and she shook her head just a fraction of an inch. Lycus seemed to understand and took the cup on the right. She then turned back towards the Saxon, holding the tray in such a way that he'd naturally reach for the cup on the left. He did so. She took the last cup and held it up.
"Your good health," she said. The trio drained their cups. The Saxon smacked his lips appreciatively.
"Not bad," he mused. "Nothing compared to our own brew in Wessex, of course. But not without its charms."
Meleri smiled broadly as the Saxon returned his goblet.
"And what message shall I bring back to my lord?" the Saxon asked, turning back to Lycus.
"You may tell him that when Arthur returns, we will settle all matters. Until such time, Sarum and Salisbury stand against you."
"Very well," said the Saxon. "So be it upon your head. Wotan's wrath will break upon you like an angry sea. Thank you for the mead, my lady."
As the Saxon turned to leave, Meleri stepped forward. "Wait!" she called. "You say Du Plain has fallen. What has become of the lord's family?"
"They are safe by the personal orders of the Prince," said the Saxon, turning just before he left the hall and looking like he didn't agree with his master's orders. "Perhaps you should remember that before you make war against us."
There was silence for several seconds after the messenger departed. Then Lycus spoke. "How long does he have to live?"
"A week at the most," replied Meleri grimly, fingering the vial of Devil's Own Venom, now lighter by the three droplets she had slipped into the Saxon's mead, that sat in her belt pouch.
"Hopefully we have more time than that," Lycus said.
The snows of winter began to fall a month later. With them came word that Arthur's army had returned from the north and made camp at Carlion in Estregales. The High King had issued a summons for all those loyal to the Pendragon to flock to his banner. Herringdale, now getting around on his own albeit a little stiffly, was quickly recovering and busily making plans to depart for the east at the earliest opportunity. The Saxon advance had taken the southern and eastern parts of the county, but Salisbury was far from out for the count. Despite the envoy's threats, there was no chance Sarum could fall to a Saxon army as long as a relief force existed. It also came to light that King Cerdic had not actually managed to take Levcomagus or Silchester, and both cities were currently riding out the winter under siege.
With a light snow falling outside his chamber window, a fully-recovered Herringdale finalized his preparations to ride east. Meleri was packing away the last of his provisions when she stood and faced him. They exchanged a wordless look pregnant with meaning. They both knew that, win or lose, they may never see each other again. And that Meleri's survival, and the survival of Herringdale's other children, depended on his victory against the Saxons.
"I have a long ride ahead of me," he said at last.
Belting his sword to his waist, Herringdale strode from the room, summoning Baldrick from his post out in the hall. Though he could not know it yet, his destiny, and indeed all that of Britain, lay closer to home than he realized: at the foot of an old fort called Badon Hill...
[Despite the scrambling necessitated by Herringdale's near-fatal encounter with the Saxons, this session actually turned out great as a prelude to next year. Plus it gave Meleri some serious spotlight time; I'm looking forward to shifting gears for a while - as I said above, it'll definitely be a change of pace! But yeah, when Herringdale went down, so too did my visions of using my siege table for the investiture of Broughton or any thought of a relief army riding to the rescue of Du Plain. Hey, that's Pendragon for you - gotta roll with the punches of character mortality. An excellent case study in why having a back-up character ready to go can come in handy.]