Another one of those years that crop up periodically during the canonical GPC: wherein the PC is given the chance to witness and play a minor role in episode from the stories. This year happened to feature one of my favorite tales and Meleri found herself stuck in the middle, having to mull over where exactly her loyalties lay. In the process, she proved herself to be every bit the daughter of Sir Herringdale, much to the chagrin of one Sir Damas of Levcomagus.
Winter Phase brought with it an interesting development: a suitor had made an effort to win Meleri's hand. Sir Gergore, a bachelor knight of Salisbury, made overtures that were dismissed out of hand. Meleri knew she was viewed with fear by some in the county, self-righteous pity by others, but she was not so desperate as to accept the hand of a young knight so lacking in glory and honor. She didn't see any reason to tell her suitor as much, though. Nothing wrong with having another knight at her beck and call, should she need one. Still, the proposal, along with the birth of her third child earlier that year, had left her thinking seriously about marriage for the first time in her 29 years. If only Sir Lamorak would settle down and devote himself to her...
After swimming with the sharks at Countess Ellen's court, Meleri decided to take on two retainers: Rosamund, an expert in courtly protocol and practice, and Arawine, a tailor and expert in the latest fashions. Her own household knight, Sir Haegirth, had continued evincing strangely erratic behavior, at times disappearing for days before turning up again, bedraggled and travelworn. Although his actions were of some concern to Meleri, she turned a blind eye towards them through the winter. When he was acting himself, Haegirth was proving to be an able and chivalrous pagan knight and an asset to her household.
"My lady," the squire said, bowing before Meleri in the great hall. "I bring you a token sent by my lord."
The squire produced a small wooden box. Meleri stepped forward and opened it, finding within a jeweled gold circlet resting on a velvet pillow.
Scarcely had the squire departed than another rider arrived at Broughton. This young man had come at the behest of Sir Ontzlake, whom Meleri had met the year before as a member of King Arthur's party when the Pendragon had come to Broughton in search of the talking eagle.
"Lady," the messenger said, "I am bidden to come and tell you that Sir Ontzlake requests you come to his manor at your earliest convenience. Your man, Sir Haegirth, is currently a prisoner in the custody of my lord, and he would have you come fetch him away."
Meleri was quite startled by this development. Now that she thought on it, Sir Haegirth had indeed been missing from Broughton Hall for the last three days or so. That was hardly unusual for this knight, but what sort of trouble had he gotten himself into that he would end up imprisoned by a knight of Silchester?
Sir Ontzlake lived on the other side of the Harewood, just over the border from Salisbury. Meleri made arrangements to depart at once, putting her children in the charge of their nurse and taking along her usual entourage. Picking their way along backroads and trails through the woods, they made it to Ontzlake's manor on the afternoon of the second day after departing Broughton.
Meleri noted the manor itself was well-appointed albeit a tad modest in size. Entering the hall, she saw fine tapestries lining the walls and a great roast turning over the spit on the hearth fire. Near the fire sat, or rather reclined, Sir Ontzlake. He was laid out on a long couch, wearing only his chemise and a blanket over his lower extremities.
"I apologize for receiving you into my hall thus," said Ontzlake as Meleri curtsied before him. "And you must forgive me for not rising to greet you. I have been grievously wounded." He motioned towards his pelvis as he said this last bit.
"If it would please you, I can take a look at the wound," said Meleri. Ontzlake turned slightly crimson, but nodded his assent. Delicately, Ontzlake's squire pulled the blanket back just enough to reveal a fearsome spear wound: the weapon had pierced the knight at the point where thigh met pelvis and gone straight through, exiting out the buttock. Both wounds were bloody and angry and the whole area looked painfully swollen.
Meleri excused herself and went to the manor's herb garden, where she found the ingredients she required. Fetching a mortar and pestle from her traveling gear, she prepared a poultice which she then applied to Ontzlake's wounds. As with Pellinore, she also prepared a restorative draught which she had the knight sip while she tended to him.
"Thank you, my lady. I am more at ease," said Ontzlake as his wounds, having been dressed with wrappings, were covered again. "Now as to why I summoned you here: I regret to tell you that the wounds you have just tended to were caused by none other than Sir Haegirth."
Meleri blanched. "Say it isn't so!" she blurted out. "It is well that I was able to help you, then. It seems the least I could do."
Ontzlake nodded. "I was out hunting in the Harewood not five days ago. I saw Haegirth approaching, on foot, spear in hand. I thought perhaps you had sent him on an errand, so I hailed him. As soon as he saw me, his eyes bugged out, he gave a fearsome scream, and he came at me. I managed to knock him to the ground, but not before he transfixed me with his own spear. He is currently under lock and key." He waved an arm towards a tapestry. "He is in the storage pantry. My man can take you to him."
At that, Meleri followed Ontzlake's squire through a tapestry covering a doorway, then through the kitchens and to a stout oak door, beside which hung a key on a ring. The squire unlocked the door, then stepped back. "I'll be right here if there's any trouble, madam," he said. Meleri thanked the squire and stepped through the door.
Illuminated only by the light from the kitchen, the pantry was a dark, shoebox-shaped room with shelves full of dry goods down one side. At the far end of the room, crouched on the packed-dirt floor, was Sir Haegirth, also stripped down to his chemise. He had about a week's worth of beard grown on his face, a nasty bump swelled on his forehead, and he looked haggard, like he'd been crying for long periods. Meleri's brow furrowed in pity and consternation.
"Explain," she said.
"My lady," he croaked. "You came for me. I...I fear I am possessed. I am losing my mind." He began to cry, obviously distraught. Meleri moved in and comforted him. Through the choking sobs, a picture of a tortured knight began to emerge. Haegirth lamented that he was missing time, that he would come to his senses in the middle of the woods or on the road for London.
"The last thing I remember before meeting you," he concluded, finally collecting himself, "is heading into an ancient graveyard outside Gloucester. I...remember I was supposed to fetch a thighbone from a grave, but I cannot for the life of me remember why..."
Perplexed, Meleri took Haegirth's hand and led him from the pantry. "I will help you figure out what is causing these episodes," she promised. She turned to Ontzlake's squire. "See to it that my man is cleaned up and made presentable for this evening's supper." She then returned to the great hall and related Haegirth's tale to Ontzlake.
"A remarkable adventure!" the knight marveled. "In light of the poor devil's state, I release him from my custody. You are a most forgiving and merciful lady to take him in like that."
Meleri couldn't help but agree. A table was brought out from the wall and laid for the afternoon meal. Haegirth emerged, looking much better with a fresh shave and clean clothes. As the trio prepared to begin eating, the sound of a rider approaching the manor came in through the open hall doors. Seconds later, a knight in full armor entered and immediately kneeled before Ontzlake.
"Forgive my intrusion, lord," the knight pleaded. "I am lost and well away from home."
"Then come sit at my table and sup with us and tell us your tale," said Ontzlake.
As the strange knight took a seat, Meleri noted his sword, which looked to be of exceptional craftsmanship. Certainly the scabbard alone was something to behold, being encrusted with jewels, gems, and gold.
"I am Sir Accolon of Gaul," said the knight. "I was lately of Camelot, and rode forth in the presence of King Arthur and King Uriens on a hunt, but we became lost in the wilds in pursuit of a deer. The chase left our horses spent, and we proceeded through strange woods on foot until we came to a lake. There, from out of the mists, came a boat draped in silk and samite. As soon as we entered the boat, it bore us back across the water to an island, where waited nine damosels. They fed us and provided us with sleeping furs and tents to rest our sore bones. But when I next awoke, I was alone, hovering on the edge of a deep well!
"As I turned from the well, I saw before me a dwarf. He held this sword out to me," he said, patting the jeweled scabbard at his waist, "and told me I would have need of it soon to perform a great and noble deed."
"What sword is that?" Meleri asked.
"Why would you have Arthur's sword?" asked Meleri. "Is the High King safe?"
"I do not know!" lamented Accolon. "After the dwarf gave me the sword of power, I wondered for a day through the woods until I came upon this manor. What nature of quest I am yet to fulfill remains unknown to me."
The diners finished their meal speculating about Accolon's destiny and the fate of Arthur and then retired, Meleri and her retainers being given the use of Ontzlake's private chambers while the three knights slept in the hall.
The next morning, as she was finishing her toilette, Meleri heard a commotion down in the hall. Rushing to find the source, she found Ontzlake in a state of great agitation.
"A message from my brother!" he wailed from his couch, waving a piece of parchment. "Delivered just this morning. He has found a champion." He spoke these last words with the same heavy weight one would invoke when pronouncing a death sentence.
"I'm sorry, I don't..." Meleri began, but Ontzlake began to wail again. Presently he collected himself and explained the nature of his dilemma. "My brother, Sir Damas, has been steward of Levcomagus these last three years," he said. "But by rights the title and the lands forthcoming should be mine. Sir Uffo, the Duke's eldest son, has repeatedly denied my petitions of redress for reasons that remain obscure to me. My brother has said he would put his lands and title on the line in battle before God, but he refuses to fight himself. He says he will fight me when he finds a champion. They say he waylays wandering knights who come to his lands and throws them in his donjon if they don't agree to fight for his cause. It is not just, and so far he has been unable to find anyone who would prefer championing him over rotting in a cell. But now he has, it seems. And me, unable to fight!" he wailed again, indicating his wounds.
"Could your brother not be convinced to delay the day of challenge in light of your condition?" Meleri asked.
"Alas, the terms of our agreement were that we would fight on a day appointed by him. If I don't present myself or a champion of my own later today on the field outside Levcomagus, I forfeit my few remaining possessions."
"Sir, I believe this is the reason I've been placed at your service," said Accolon, placing his hand on the hilt of Excalibur. Ontzlake and Accolon exchanged meaningful glances, then shook hands. Meleri, suspicious of the timing of Accolon's appearance and his possession of Excalibur, merely pursed her lips. She decided to ride with the knights to Levcomagus to witness the fight between the champions of Ontzlake and Damas.
Three hours later, the walled city of Levcomagus came into view. Tents were erected on a great lawn under the shadow of the mighty fortifications and Accolon rode through the gates to summon Sir Damas and his champion. A quarter-hour later, Accolon re-emerged, followed several minutes later by a remarkable procession: two riders came forth, one in full armor. Behind them shuffled about 20 men, all in varying stages of decrepitude. Their skin was pale and waxen, and they blinked in the bright light as if they hadn't seen the sun in ages. Some were so weak they had to lean on their brethren for support, and as soon as the procession came to a halt they collapsed to the ground, scarcely able to lift their heads. Meleri realized these must be the knights that Sir Damas had imprisoned when they refused to fight for his cause.
"I told Sir Damas you wished a parley," Accolon said to Meleri as he rode back. She flicked the reins of her palfrey and rode forth, meeting Damas in open ground between the two camps.
"Sir," said Meleri as the two drew near and she reined her horse in, "I have come to appeal to your better nature. Your brother wishes to defend his rights himself, and asks only that he be allowed to recover from wounds recently sustained at the hands of one of my own knights. I feel some guilt for his current state, as you can imagine, and it would mean much to me if you were to grant this."
"It has taken me this long to find a champion that would match my standards," sneered Sir Damas, smoothing his linen bliaud. "Ontzlake knows the terms of the agreement; if he cannot fight and will not field a champion in his stead..."
"I was merely hoping to appeal to your better nature and your respect for the bond of family," Meleri said, her expression hardening.
"And who are you to lecture me on such things? Keep your tongue to yourself, loose-lipped trollop!"
It happened in a flash. The small knife Meleri kept at her belt when traveling was out of its scabbard in a flash of silver and, like a snake striking, was quickly buried in Damas's thigh, inches from his groin. Damas screamed in agony, his hands desperately pressing on the wound as Meleri quickly withdrew the knife and turned her horse about. Blood gushed between Damas's fingers as his squires rushed forward to help him off his horse.
"Now you have the same excuse as your brother for not fighting today!" Meleri called back over her shoulder.
Des invoked her Honor passion successfully and proceeded to Crit her Dagger roll. With no armor, Damas was knocked down to Unconscious. He made his CON roll to stay awake, but was in no mood to do anything in retaliation...right away. We agreed that in that moment Meleri showed she was indeed Herringdale's daughter - the action recalled something the old knight would have pulled in similar circumstances.]
As Meleri resumed her place near Ontzlake, she spied a young damosel talking to Damas's champion. She was handing the knight a scabbarded sword. As soon as the knight took the weapon, the young lady was away with all speed. Damas, still cursing Meleri's name, called his champion forward. The knight, helmeted and wearing Damas's colors, hefted a lance, the mysterious new sword strapped to his side.
As Accolon also rode forth, Meleri took a closer look at the sword at the other knight's side. It appeared to be a duplicate of the sword and scabbard that hung from Accolon's baldric. A copy of Excalibur. Or the real thing? As Damas's champion made ready to charge Accolon, Meleri couldn't help but feel she'd seen the knight before. With the helmet on, it was impossible to tell, but there was something awfully familiar about his build and carriage. Could it really be...?
unhorsed each other. Slowly they rose to their feet as Meleri rushed forward alongside Accolon's squire.
"I am fine," wheezed Accolon's voice from inside his helm.
Regaining his feet, Accolon drew Excalibur and strode forth. The two champions began circling each other, then launched a flurry of blows. The only sound was the ring of steel blade on wooden shield, the echoing grunts from inside their helms. Then Damas's champion landed a telling blow on Accolon's sword arm. The chain links were broken, but no blood was drawn. Several more blows were scored against Accolon, all with similar results. Accolon, though somewhat outclassed by his opponent, was still managing to land the occasional blow. Each hit, no matter how slight, was severing metal as if it were paper and cutting deep into Damas's champion, causing blood to issue forth in copious quantities.
Then Damas's champion brought his sword down in a great smashing blow - and the blade broke off at the hilt! A great gasp went up from the onlookers, but the champion, not missing a beat, rushed Accolon with his shield, throwing the knight off balance, and struck him on the helm with the broken hilt of his sword. Accolon went down, stunned, and Excalibur flew from his grasp. Damas's champion snatched it up, then held the glimmering blade to Accolon's chest.
"Yield!" came the breathless cry. Accolon threw up his hands. Damas's champion lowered Excalibur and helped Accolon to his feet. The number of deep bleeding wounds that covered the champion's body was truly alarming, and Meleri wondered how he was keeping his feet.
"My liege, I knew not!" cried Accolon, throwing himself at Arthur's feet and pulling off his helm.
"Alas," cried Arthur, "I fear we have been the subjects of base treachery." He limped over towards Damas, who was laid out on the ground clutching a crude bandage to the knife wound Meleri had inflicted. "As for you, cur," the High King snarled, "before I fought for you, I extracted your oath that these men would all be set free whether I win or lose."
Damas nodded weakly in assent.
"Furthermore, although I fought on your behalf, the cause was unjust. I rule the decision by combat void. Rather, I rule your title and holdings forfeit in favor of your brother Sir Ontzlake, a chivalrous knight honorable and true. I furthermore rule that you may never again mount a charger, unfit as you are to hold the title of knight, and must from this day forth ride naught but a palfrey like a lady."
Damas merely closed his eyes, what little color was remaining in his face draining away.
"Now I must rest," said Arthur weakly, and with that he limped over to a nearby oak tree and threw himself down in its shade. Meleri was at his side almost instantly, tending to his many wounds.
"This seems familiar," said Arthur wryly. It was the first time he had acknowledged the circumstances in which they'd first met ten years previous, the circumstances that led to the dalliance that produced the child Arthur didn't know was his. Meleri smiled back.
After seeing to bandaging his hurts, Meleri rode at the king's side as he was conveyed up into Levcomagus, thence to an abbey that stood hard up against the city walls. She consented to stay with the king while he was healing at the abbey, but her stay was to be much shorter than anyone could have anticipated.
The morning after arrival, Meleri heard a gaggle of nuns talking nervously outside her door. Opening it, she found them about to knock.
"Begging your pardon, but the Pendragon is preparing to leave," said one nervously.
"What!?" exclaimed Meleri, hurrying forth. She came to the courtyard just in time to see Arthur galloping away with Ontzlake and Accolon at this side. "Why?"
"It was his sister, Queen Morgan" said one of the nuns. "She arrived in the dark of night. We saw no reason not to let her in..."
"Morgan?" asked Meleri. Her mind flashed back to her six years spent at the cold northern courts of Gorre waiting upon the enigmatic queen, of the sacred secrets she had learned at her feet. "What did she want?"
"Well...she tried to steal Arthur's sword," said one of the nuns, looking mortified. "Or so it seems. She only managed to slip away with his scabbard, though."
Meleri and the nuns spent the next hour in nervous anticipation. Then Arthur and his two companions returned, but without the scabbard. Over a simple meal of bread and cheese, Accolon explained what had happened: Morgan had come with an escort of 60 knights, but they all fled at Arthur's approach, the Queen in their midst. Arthur rode hard in pursuit, but the Queen had enough of a head start that she was able to pause and hurl Excalibur's scabbard into a lake. As Arthur and his men gained on Morgan and her knights, they briefly disappeared over a small rise just beyond the lake. Cresting the rise, the trio marveled to see only a field of standing stones, the Queen and her knights nowhere to be seen.
As Arthur concluded his tale, his eyes met Meleri's. Both were remembering the first of the eagle's prophecies from the year before: "You will almost die, and then find yourself lost
among a field of stones." Meleri could tell something else was bothering Arthur as well, but whatever it was he kept it to himself.
Arthur spent three weeks at the abbey recovering from his wounds, Meleri helping greatly in his recovery with her masterful chirurgical skills. At last the king was preparing to return to Camelot, two days' ride south of Levcomagus.
"I must insist you accompany us, my lady," he told Meleri over supper the day before departure. "Your contributions to my recovery deserve to be recognized at High Court."
All along the road to the city, travelers stopped to hail the passing king and his entourage. As they entered the city proper, this attention and adulation became downright alarming. Men, women, and children flooded the boulevard and hung out of second-story windows, calling the king's name and wishing good health and blessings upon him. Arthur waved regally, smiling at his adoring subjects. Meleri had never felt so many eyes on her at once; it was unnerving.
They rode through the Jewish District, past a massive stone cross in the center of a great market, under the shadow of St. Stephen's Cathedral, and across a massive tourney field. Beyond lay Caratacus Keep, the smaller of the city's two planned castles and the royal residence until the Keep of Gold was finished. After dismounting in the courtyard and being seen to by an army of pages and squires, Arthur and his party passed through the first floor gallery, where sat the massive Round Table, then up a sweeping stone staircase. Entry through a set of double doors on a landing off the stairs granted entrance to a grand gallery that looked out over the rooftops of Camelot.
"Could it be my cousin?" she asked, beaming. She strode forward and the two embraced. Guenevere's hug felt warm and more than perfunctory, but Meleri could feel the eyes of the other women of the court upon her. If she had thought Countess Ellen's court pageant was tough, it was as child's play compared to this. Still, she could tell that she had been accepted as "good enough" by most of the ladies present after a short period of silent vetting [having progressed through two rounds of the beauty judging portion of the pageant, a decent showing considering the competition].
As this was playing out, a table was being laid out with food and guests began to arrive; even for a simple repast at the end of a long journey, the king and queen never dined alone. King Uriens of Gorre, husband of Queen Morgan, was announced and entered. Arthur's nephew, Sir Gawaine, then entered the gallery, talking closely with a handsome young knight Meleri did not recognize but who was announced as Sir Ywaine of Gorre. Sir Accolon and Sir Ontzlake were of course welcomed to dine with the king. Then, as everyone was sitting and preparing to eat, a late arrival was announced: Sir Lamorak de Gales.
Lamorak started visibly as he entered and caught sight of Meleri. He presented himself before Arthur, then bowed to Meleri and took a seat next to her.
"My heart is gladdened to find you here," he said to her as jellied eels in spicy currant sauce were laid before them. Meleri smiled back. They listened as the king held forth on the new rules for chivalric siege he'd be instituting, the founding of the Companions, and, finally, as he recounted his tale of fighting Sir Accolon.
"But how did you come by Excalibur?" Guenevere asked Accolon as Arthur finished his tale. Accolon's eyes flashed towards Uriens before he answered.
"I believe it came to me by Queen Morgan," said Accolon nervously. An awkward silence descended until Arthur called for music. As the minstrels struck up a reel, Meleri looked up to see the green eyes of Sir Ywaine looking down at her.
"To Lady Meleri of Broughton!" he called, and the toast was echoed by the laughing, sweating dancers. The laughter died quickly at the sound of a trumpet fanfare, however. Sir Cynrain of Cornwall entered and announced the arrival of a messenger from Queen Morgan.
A young lady, whom Meleri recognized as the same damosel who had handed Arthur the fake Excalibur, entered the hall bearing a parcel wrapped in cloth. She cut a path through the dancers and curtsied before Arthur, who was still standing at the high table. To either side, Uriens and Guenevere watched the lady closely.
"I bring a token from my mistress, Queen Morgan," she said. "It is but a mere token to show the Queen's deep remorse at her actions of late, and an entreaty for forgiveness that brother and sister might reconcile their ways." The damosel then daintily unwrapped the parcel, letting the cloth fall away to reveal a magnificent cloak of ermine, velvet, and precious gems.
"That is indeed a fine cloak..." said Arthur, transfixed. He began to reach a hand across the table to take the proffered cloak when Meleri, unable to contain herself, burst out.
"Majesty, no!" Meleri heard a disapproving cough from her protocol expert who was standing in the gallery eaves, but paid Rosamund no mind. "Make her put it on first," she said, nodding to the damosel. The young lady turned whiter than Ywaine's hands, but, with a nod from Arthur, swung the cloak around her shoulders.
At once, she was consumed in a pillar of flame. She died screaming, her charred remains smoking on the floor of the gallery as the assembled revelers all back-pedaled away in horror, covering their faces against the horrific stench of burnt flesh and hair.
"Base treachery!" Arthur bellowed. "Perfidy!"
"Your majesty, I had no idea!" said Uriens, eerily echoing Accolon's protest of some weeks prior.
"I trust your word, friend," said Arthur. "You were by my side on the hunt that led to my capture, I know you had no part in this." At this, Arthur's gaze fell upon Ywaine. "But this one carries the seed of his mother's evil within his heart," he said, pointing an accusing finger at the son of Uriens and Morgan. "Hie thee from my court. Let my gaze fall not upon you again!"
With a courteous bow, Ywaine swept from the court, stunned silence accompanying him. The silence was broken by Gawaine. "Sire, you go too far! I am sorry, but whatsoever you do to my cousin, you do also to me!" He then hurried from court, close on Ywaine's heels. Meleri saw a shadow of regret cross Arthur's face. Close to, she heard Lamorak mutter, "Good riddance to Orkney scum."
After that evening's horrible events, Meleri was happy to linger in the presence of her love for a week. Lamorak had taken a townhouse in the city, and they spent much time at Arthur's court or else exploring the burgeoning metropolis - and even more time in private in each other's arms.
"Come back to Broughton with me," Meleri asked Lamorak one evening. She felt his chest rise and heave with a sigh of deepest regret.
"Alas, I cannot. I have pledged to march with Sir Griflet in two days' time. We go north to campaign against the Picts beyond the wall."
The two fell silent as the candle lighting the bed chamber burned itself out.
Lamorak, true to his word, departed for the marshaling grounds outside Silchester and Meleri, having no reason to remain in Camelot, returned home at last. She was looking forward to seeing her children, at least. As the sun sank below the western horizon, she guided her horse up to the entrance of Broughton Hall. Dismounting, she headed inside; she could hear her baby, the fae offspring of the Gallant of Sauvage, squalling within.
But she did not find the old nurse soothing the crying babe, no. She found instead her old mistress.
"Good evening, Meleri," said Queen Morgana, smiling as she held the baby to her shoulder.
[We technically left things off there, but I informed Des that Morgan, ducking the armies heading north along the same roads she'd need to return to Gorre, intends to stay at Broughton for the winter. Des is pondering how to handle this conflict of loyalties, but figures for the time being at least Meleri will bend to Morgan's will. I think Meleri will pick up a Trusting: Morgan le Fay directed trait for that, and/or possibly lose a point of Loyalty (Pendragon). We'll hash out details during next session's Winter Phase.
This adventure is a great example of how you can insert PCs into canonical events. In the stories, it's the Lady of the Lake who warns Arthur of the treacherous cloak; in some versions, the Lady also bails Arthur out from the fight with Accolon, though I've read others where Arthur triumphs through sheer chutzpah, as we had here. Still, the opportunity for Meleri to save the day was there. I thought in particular that Meleri might try to slip Accolon some of her sleeping draught potion once she got an inkling about the identity of Damas's champion. After the game, I asked Des about this and she said she considered it, but since she wasn't sure about Arthur's identity (which would have required a Critical Recognize roll), she didn't want to risk using up her limited supply. But at least she didn't shank Arthur!]