Monday, August 22, 2011

[Solo GPC] 522: Missed Connections

This year Des once again demonstrated her ability to put her characters through the emotional mill by involving them in tricky affairs of the heart. She certainly didn't make things easy for herself in choosing to pursue a love affair with Sir Lamorak, the prototypical knight errant. This year, dealing with a trickster fairy on her lands would be the least of Lady Meleri's worries...

We left things off last session with Queen Morgan, fleeing from her half-brother Arthur, calling upon her old handmaiden at Broughton Hall. Meleri decided she'd allow Morgan to stay through the cold months, but felt torn in her loyalties. She picked up a Trusting (Morgan) directed trait of +6(!) but also critted her Loyalty (Pendragon) roll as spring came to Salisbury. But before we dealt with the ramifications of that passion roll, there was the Winter Phase to attend to. As Meleri had spent some time in the company of Lamorak the year before, a roll on the childbirth table was in order. Lo and behold, Meleri was with child! Morgan proved an able midwife as Meleri delivered Lamorak's bastard daughter. The queen also proved helpful in providing some clues to the mysterious conditions of Meleri's bachelor knight, Sir Haegirth.

"The man is possessed by, I believe, no fewer than two spirits," Morgan told Meleri in private. "The unquiet dead can at times inhabit the bodies of the living, though it is rare for more than one to do so at a time. Once the spirits have taken residence in their host, they will attempt to exert their own wills over the living person."

"What can be done to drive the spirits out?" asked Meleri, alarmed at this latest development.

"The spirits remain restless because they died with unquiet souls," Morgan replied. "Sometimes there is a task you can complete that will put the spirit to rest. Alternately, you can return to the place where Sir Haegirth picked up his, uh, 'guests'," she continued with a wry smile, "and see about sending them back whence they came.

"It seems to me that one of the spirits in question is very ancient, perhaps Pictish. It is this spirit that is responsible for most of Sir Haegirth's strange behavior. Here," said Morgan, pulling a glass vial from her robes, "I have prepared a draught that will help Sir Haegirth keep his wits about him and suppress the spirits within him. Take care that you decide how to help him before the bottle runs empty."

"Many thanks, majesty," said Meleri, taking the vial. Morgan continued to stare at Meleri with a searching look, then finally rose.

"There is a lake in the woods near here that is great in the power of the old gods. I have been awaiting the approach of Beltane eve that I may perform a ceremony there. In a week's time I will journey to the lake and will be there for a day before returning here." With that she swept from the hall.

Meleri sat, torn by her loyalties. It seemed Morgan was finally preparing to leave. The decision she had been putting off all year was at last upon her. Pocketing the draught the queen had given her, Meleri stood and called for her steward. She had made up her mind: despite the help Morgan had offered her, the queen was still guilty of attempted murder and needed to face the king's justice. As kin, Morgan would no doubt benefit from Arthur's mercy, but she needed to answer for her behavior. Still, Meleri did not want to alert Arthur directly, so she split the difference. She dictated a letter and addressed it to Earl Robert, then dispatched a rider to the Earl's court.

Several days passed with no reply from the Earl. Finally, on the eve of Beltane, Morgan departed as planned. The following afternoon, at last, came a banner of knights, the Marshall of Salisbury, Sir Jaradan, riding at their head.

"My lady," said Jaradan, hopping down from his saddle, "we have received your letter. Where is she?"

"In the woods," said Meleri, pointing. "She told me she'd return tomorrow."

They stood silently contemplating the darkening woods for some time before Meleri spoke again. "What took you so long?"

"The Earl is currently in residence at Devizes Castle, three days' ride from here. We came with all haste once we received your letter, of course."

"Of course," muttered Meleri. "Won't you come in and rest from your long journey?"

Meleri saw to the needs of the Marshall and his knights, proving an able hostess. But as the day wore into night, she couldn't shake the mounting suspicion that Morgan would not be returning. Sure enough, with the dawn the following morning there came no sign of Morgan. The day passed and still the queen did not come back from the woods.

"I fear Morgan may have noted your arrival," Meleri told Jaradan over supper.

"It may well be," said Jaradan grimly. "She is a wily one. They say she has a castle in the Morgaine Forest on the southern border."

"I am sorry to have called you across the county on a wild goose chase then," said Meleri, not entirely sure if she meant what she said.

"We were going to come this way at any rate," said the battle-scarred Marshall. "The Earl wishes to see you and has issued a summons for you to appear at his court."

Meleri nearly dropped her spoon in surprise. What could the Earl want with her?

The knights rode patrol through the Harewood for two more days but turned up no sign of Morgan. The lake she had said she'd be visiting on Beltane was as quiet and empty as ever and the local charcoal burners could give no account of the queen's passing. Finally, plans were made to return to Devizes with Meleri along for the journey. Before they departed, Meleri dispatched messengers to Camelot and Norgales bearing letters for Sir Lamorak. She missed him desperately and wanted to introduce him to their child.

After leaving Broughton, with stops at Sarum and Tilshead, the party eventually made its way to Devizes. The fortress on the northwest border of Salisbury showed evident signs of recent construction and upgrading and Meleri couldn't help but feel impressed by its commanding presence.

Within the castle's keep, Meleri found Earl Robert holding court. She felt the eyes of Lady Katherine and her courtiers upon her yet again, judging her. She watched as Sir Jaradan gave his report on failing to apprehend Morgan le Fay. As Meleri presented herself before the Earl, she also saw a young squire bearing the arms of Sir Ontzlake.

"It is a shame that Morgan gave us the slip," said the Earl, "but you did well in alerting us. King Arthur has declared Morgan an outlaw, all her lands and possessions forfeit."

Meleri nodded, hoping it would never come to light exactly how long Morgan had been at Broughton.

"I thank you for coming so promptly to my summons," Robert continued. "I have a message from Sir Ontzlake, steward of Levcomagus, that concerns you." He motioned to the squire standing nearby, who stepped up and handed Robert a letter. "Sir Ontzlake intends to marry you," said Robert, indicating the letter.

Meleri's heart fell. "My lord, this is most unexpected," she said, recovering.

"But not unwelcome, I hope?" asked Robert, handing the letter back to the squire. "Long have we held an enmity with Levcomagus. A marriage between its new steward and the daughter of one of Salisbury's most illustrious knights would go a long way towards healing that rift. And you would stand to benefit as well: now that he has his rightful inheritance again, Ontzlake boasts considerable holdings."

"I...must think on it," said Meleri. Robert's face fell but he recovered quickly.

"Then stay as my guest here while you make up your mind."

Meleri bowed and excused herself. She knew that, again, the Earl was holding back in deference to her blood. As her legal guardian, he had the option and the right to make her marry whomever he pleased. And he was right: it was a good match, both politically and materially. But she still held out hope about Lamorak...

She lingered a week at Devizes but still could not make up her mind. During her stay, she heard worrying rumors that the Pictish expedition Lamorak had embarked upon under the leadership of Sir Griflet had not gone well. Also, apparently Sir Gawaine and Sir Ywaine had yet to return to Camelot, despite Arthur making it known they'd both be welcomed back. There were tales of three knights riling up the whole of the Forest Arroy with their adventures and it was widely supposed that two of their number were the missing Orkney knights.

At last, Meleri asked the Earl to grant her leave to return to her manor, promising to give him an answer to Ontzlake's proposal by year's end.

"Very well," said Robert, visibly irritated, "but do not tarry long. I do not know how long Sir Ontzlake is willing to wait."

Riding with her entourage, Meleri returned to Broughton after an absence of three weeks. As she approached her manor, Meleri could see the aged village headman, Old Gorwell, coming up the road to meet her.

"My lady," he wheezed as she reined her horse to a stop, "the village has been much vexed in your absence."

Looking out over her lands, Meleri could see no visible signs of trouble; the peasants were out in the fields or else going about their usual business. "What goes on?" she asked Gorwell.

"A curse!" said Gorwell, his bloodshot eyes bugging out. "The devil himself has come! Livestock have gone missing, there have been visitations by malevolent spirits, and old familial feuds have been renewed. It has been a sore vexing time, even with that Sir Lamorak coming by..."

"What!?" Meleri asked quickly, looking about as if expecting to see Lamorak standing right next to her.

"Aye," said Gorwell, "he came through about a fortnight afore. Stayed for a day or two, then said he had to be on his way."

Cursing, Meleri urged her horse past Old Gorwell and up to the manor house. Her steward confirmed it: Lamorak had been by.

"Did he mention my letter?" Meleri asked anxiously.

"No madam, he did not," said the steward. Meleri bit her lip as she turned away from the steward. Old Gorwell came stumping into the hall, panting a bit from the hike up the hill to the manor.

"What?" Meleri asked impatiently.

"The villagers have been clamoring for you, my lady," said Gorwell. "They want to know how you intend to rid them of this curse."

Doing a bit of cursing herself, Meleri departed the hall, taking Sir Haegirth with her. She strode down into the village and, at her approach, villagers began to swarm around her.

"What has been going on?" Meleri shouted to the assembly. She was met with a barrage of complaints.

"My neighbors have started feuding with me!"

"I've been getting the evil eye!"

"A cow's milk has gone bad!"

"I hear strange sounds at night!"

"Evil words spring forth from my mouth!"

Meleri raised her hands, appealing for calm. The crowd settled down enough for her to talk.

"When did all this start?" she asked.

"Right around when you left, lady," said a tall, strapping farmer. "Shortly after May Day."

Beltane, thought Meleri. Could Morgan have known about Meleri's duplicity and left behind a curse?

"I know who's behind it," the farmer continued.

"Oh?" said Meleri. "Pray tell me."

"It's that no-account Caddan. He lives out yonder, on the other side of the orchards and has little truck with the rest of the village. But I found one of my stolen chickens on his land and I've seen strange lights out that way at night."

"Take me to this Caddan," said Meleri. She told Haegirth to stay behind and take down details of the villagers' complaints. The farmer led Meleri along a trail out of the village and down through the orchards. The neat rows of trees soon gave way to a somewhat overgrown wooded area. "It's just beyond these woods," said the farmer.

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the sound of a crying child came from a nearby stand of hawthorne. "What's that?" Meleri asked, coming to a halt. They stood listening as the cries continued. Curiosity piqued, Meleri walked cautiously towards the hawthorne. The crying was definitely coming from within the dense stand of thorny bracken. "Hello?" she called out. The crying intensified.

Trying not to snag her clothes or hair on the hawthorne thorns, Meleri pushed her way into the bush. Despite her best efforts, the hawthorne tore at her clothes and scratched her skin, but she pressed forward. As she neared the center of the bush, the crying ceased. Looking around, Meleri saw nothing but more thorny branches.

Fighting her way back out of the hawthorne, tearing her clothes a bit more, Meleri emerged panting and sweaty. "Nothing in there," she said to the farmer, who nodded grimly.

"Aye, you're not the first to hear phantom voices."

Continuing on, they emerged from the woods and Meleri caught sight of a rude, ramshackle farmhouse across a field of green wheat ripening in the June sun. As she and the farmer cut across the field, an apple-sized rock came flying out of nowhere. Meleri tried to duck but it was too late; the rock struck her on the temple, opening a bloody gash and leaving her dazed.

"What the-?" she asked as she steadied herself. Reaching to her belt, she found that her dagger had gone missing.

"It came from out in the field!" said the farmer, rushing off through the wheat. He looked around frantically, but, "Nothing!"

Without another word, Meleri marched up to farmhouse and banged on the door. A young, handsome farmer answered her call and bade her enter. "It's about time!" he sneered as she walked in.

"Excuse me?" Meleri asked, one hand clutched to her throbbing temple.

"For nearly a month I've had nothing but vexations and you finally deign to come and see what goes on," said Caddan, his buxom wife looking on as she stirred a cauldron of bubbling pottage.

"I have been away," said Meleri, "and came as soon as able. Besides, I have reports that you are the one behind all this mischief."

"Says who?" asked Caddan, clearly affronted. Meleri pointed out one of the cottage's open windows towards the tall farmer, still out in the wheat field looking for the stone thrower.

"Oi! Clear off, you!" Caddan shouted out the window. The strapping farmer made a rude hand gesture back at Caddan and began walking back towards the village. "That's Odaf," said Caddan. "He's had it in for me for some time now, for all the bleeding saints know why. He would try to get me hung from a gibbet over all this, but I swear to you I've been as much troubled -"

Meleri had raised a hand to cut Caddan off. Still looking out the window, she had seen something: a wizened little man, about two feet tall and bearded, tip-toeing between two fence posts about 10 yards from the farmhouse. Meleri's time in the Forest Sauvage had taught her much of the ways of the Good Folk, and she sensed she knew what she was dealing with. This was a trickster faerie, a creature of pure deceit and malevolence. She remembered that they were normally invisible, but one could sometimes catch a passing glimpse, as she just had. Furthermore, they were attracted to lies like flies to honey.

"My, what a lovely cottage you keep!" said Meleri, turning from the window and beaming at the Caddan and his wife. The peasants exchanged shocked expressions.

"Shut it, bitch!" This came from Caddan's wife, who immediately clapped a hand over her mouth. Meleri merely smiled; she knew the faerie was very near and playing more of his tricks. Casually, she picked up a rough wool blanket that the wife had been darning earlier.

"Yes, I would simply love to have you up to my hall for a feast as soon as may be," Meleri continued. Her eyes lit upon movement among the rafters - it was the faerie, tip-toeing along a beam! She hurled the wool, catching the little creature full in the face. He fell with a thump to the packed earth floor and Meleri was on him in an instant, bundling the wee bastard up in the wool blanket.

"Lemme go!" shrieked the creature from within. "I'll gut ya! I'll kill ya!"

"Shush," said Meleri calmly. "I'll let you go if you tell me why you've come to bother my commoners."

"Came through on Beltane," said the still-wriggling form. "Door got left open on the lake. Lemme go and I'll lead you there."

Meleri wasn't fooled for an instant. "I know the way myself, thanks," she said. Bidding Caddan and his wife farewell, she made her way back to the village, the fairy slung over her shoulder in the "bag." There she found Haegirth still taking down details of the peasants' complaints.

"Me puppy's gone missing!" one was lamenting.

"Come, Haegirth," said Meleri, leading her knight and his squire out of the other side of the village and out across the sheep pastures towards the Harewood. They walked for two hours through the light woodland, making for the lake Morgan had visited three weeks ago. Reaching its shores, Meleri stared out over the half-acre of green water, rippling gently in a summer breeze. "Now what?" she asked as the deceitful faerie continued to struggle and curse in its woolen sack.

"My lady!" said Haegirth, pointing. "I see an island! Or...I think I do. It twists before my very eyes and seems hidden behind a veil."

Meleri signaled to Haegirth's squire. "Build us a raft, boy, that we may make our way out to the island."

An hour later, a makeshift raft lay bobbing in the water. Gingerly, Meleri, Haegirth, and his squire got on board and Haegirth used his shield to paddle them out into the water. As they proceded, Meleri began to see it too: a small island with a great castle! Could this be the castle of Morgan le Fay that Jaradan had referred to?

Suddenly, the water around the raft turned from green to red. They were no longer floating on water but on blood! Shocked, Haegirth lost his balance and the whole rickety raft turned over, dumping its occupants into the bloody lake.

Meleri came up spluttering, her feet finding the muddy lake bottom. She hauled herself up onto the grassy shore of the island, Haegirth and his squire close behind. Standing, she was surprised to find her clothes and hair completely dry, no trace of blood upon her. Before her stretched a cobblestone road leading to the castle,  a remarkable ramshackle structure as grand as any she had ever seen.

The party began walking up the cobblestone road, but hadn't gone far when, with a great rumbling, the stones before them rose up and coalesced into a large massive stone man!

"Why do you walk upon me?" it asked in a grating voice.

"Because you are a road!" said Meleri indignantly. As if it resented being called something so lowly as a road, the stone man gave a roar and swung a massive fist at Meleri. Haegirth was there in an instant, blocking the fist with his shield. He began to rain down blows upon the stone man, but his blade only drew sparks from the stones. Still, he was quick while the stone man was slow and he managed to keep out of the way of its massive stoney hands for a time. Then Haegirth's luck ran out: the stone man landed a solid hit to the knight's helm that sent him sprawling. With a scream, Meleri ran to his side along with Haegirth's squire.

With no one on the road, the stone man sank back into cobblestones. Haegirth's squire removed his master's helm, revealing a bleeding and dazed - but still living - face beneath. Haegirth tried to rise, but sank back to the ground with a groan of pain.

"Lie here, Sir Haegirth," said Meleri soothingly. "I will continue on my own."

She left Haegirth in the care of his squire and continued walking - off the path - up to the castle, the deceitful faerie slung over her shoulder. Shortly, she spotted another small man approaching from the castle gates. He was about four feet tall and wore a bright red cap.

"Good day to you, my lady," he said, sweeping his cap from his balding head. "I am Ratat the Redcap, master of this castle."

"Good day, sir," said Meleri courteously. "I have come to return a missing member of your court."

Ratat looked delighted as Meleri heaved the wool blanket down on the ground and the little faerie came tumbling out, cursing viciously.

"Tad, you scoundrel!" Ratat exclaimed. "I wondered where you'd gotten off to." He looked up at Meleri, all smiles. "Please, you must come an join our feast by way of thanks."

Meleri had heard tales of faerie food and what it did to mortals who ate it, but looking into Ratat's eyes she felt she could trust him. She allowed him to take her hand and lead her up to the castle, Tad following behind grumbling, hands thrust in his pockets.

Within the courtyard of the castle several trestles had been laid out and the members of Ratat's court were milling about, chatting and laughing. Meleri saw lords and ladies dressed in outrageous garb, their faces cruelly beautiful. She saw giants and pixies and other small faeries who looked like they could be Tad's cousins.

A horn signaled the beginning of the feast and Meleri was seated at Ratat's side. The meal began with jellied faerie dust before a platter of roasted dragon cuts was laid before Meleri. She picked up a knife to spear some of the meat when it suddenly began to talking to her!

"Hey, careful with that knife missy!" it said, two of the juicy cuts forming a sort of erstaz mouth.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" Meleri said, dropping her knife. "I thought we were supposed to eat you."

"Oh. So you are. I forgot," said the meat. "Dig in. I'm most delicious!"

As Meleri started tucking in, an elfin knight seated to her other side toasted her. "Are you a friend of Morgan's?" he asked, his purple eyes twinkling.

"I served her at court," said Meleri as a plate of poached saltwater kraken was laid before her.

"An honor!" said the faerie knight.

"She was here recently?" asked Meleri, guessing the answer.

"Indeed," answered Ratat, who had been listening in. "Tad must have slipped past when she crossed over."

Meleri was distracted at this point by the sight of several faerie knights, including the one sitting next to her, jumping up and stripping off their clothes to go for a swim in the castle moat, laughing uproariously. A pixie filled Meleri's goblet with 1,000-year-old wine as Ratat offered her an apperitif of boiled moss from the rocks of Stonehenge and green cheese.

As Meleri enjoyed some powdered dragon scales ("to aid digestion," as Ratat explained), she watched a giant and pixie provide the evening's entertainment: a pantomime farce about the life and marriage of Sir Herringdale and Lady Elaine! She watched the giant take the pixie's remonstrances with good humor only to be literally stabbed in the back by the pixie when he turned away. The giant crushed the pixie, then cried great tears of remorse, all to the enthusiastic applause of the assembled court. The giant took a bow, as did the pixie, now miraculously returned to life. Meleri clapped along for politeness' sake but felt a great sadness in her bosom for the doomed romance of her mother and father. Was she simply repeating the same mistakes with her pursuit of Lamorak? Was she afraid of marriage? Was Lamorak's very inaccessibility the root of his charm and attraction?

Meleri's sadness was dispelled when the faerie knight, returned from swimming and fully clothed again, asked her for a dance. The evening slipped away into endless reels and japes and the last thing Meleri could remember was laughing and laughing and laughing...

She was awakened by a leaf falling on her face. Sitting up, she could see she was on the shore of the lake and Haegirth and his squire were slumbering nearby. The woods, she noted, had turned orange and yellow, the ground sporting a carpet of fallen leaves. It was autumn! Even though she had been at Ratat's castle for a single evening, a whole season (or more?) had passed in the world.

After waking Haegirth and his squire, Meleri hurried back to the village and her manor. She saw peasants out harvesting the ripened wheat as she trotted up the path to Broughton Hall. Within, she found her children and servants overjoyed at her reappearance.  Three months had passed since she had departed into the woods, and they had feared her dead. To her great distress, Meleri also learned that Lamorak had once again paid a visit to Broughton. He had received her letter and left behind one of his own, telling her that he would be in residence at Arthur's court at Camelot until after the harvest.

Wasting no time, Meleri made ready to depart for Camelot, riding out as soon as her horse was made ready.

Night was falling when she reached the walls of Camelot. It had been a little more than a year since she'd seen the new capital and the difference was striking. The white-washed walls were gleaming orange in the setting sun and the king's Golden Keep was nearly completed. The city already looked like it had been there for generations. Like it had always been there.

Due to the late hour, Meleri did not make for the king's court, instead taking a private room at an inn. The following morning, not knowing where exactly to find Lamorak, Meleri made her way up to the Golden Keep. She found the antechamber to the hall crowded with petitioners. She registered her name with Sir Kay and patiently waited to be announced. About an hour later her name was called and she entered the hall. Seated at the far end was Arthur in his throne, Guenevere to his left, to his right an empty throne representing the royal couple's future heir. Meleri presented herself with all due courtesy, then took her place among the milling courtiers. She scanned the hall looking for Lamorak but could not see him.

Several more lords and ladies were announced, then Kay stepped forward with a most arresting announcement: "A fisherman from France has come seeking an audience, sire. He says he has a letter of great importance to give you."

"Show him in," Arthur said as all eyes turned towards the great doors of the hall. In walked a man of middling years dressed in a brown tunic and grey leggings. Despite his homespun clothes and rough appearance he carried himself with undeniable nobility, and when he spoke it was with a courteous manner. "Your majesty," he said with a deep bow.

Sir Kay stepped up and took an old, time-worn letter, its seal broken and unreadable, from the man, looked at it, and presented it to Arthur. The High King glanced at the letter, furrowed his brow, and handed the letter to Guenevere. She too read it, then handed it on to Bishop Dewi, who had been standing nearby. "Let's hear your tale," said Arthur.

"Your majesty," the man began in a thick French accent, "While young, I was so poor that I had no boat and worked my nets from a rocky headland on the coast. My wife and I were childless, and each morning we prayed to God for a child. One dawn, after a storm, I came upon a wrecked ship with its back and ribs cracked and its cargo strewn across the beach. A baby cried; then two more, a dozen, twenty! And although many children lived, none of the crewmen were alive. In the hand of one child, who was wrapped in a silk-lined wool blanket, was the letter now in your possession.

"I have kept these children and raised them as my own household for the last ten years. Only recently did my parish priest read this letter to me and urge me to return the boys to their own land. When I heard of your kindness and honor, I knew they would be well received here, so I brought them home."

At this point Bishop Dewi cleared his throat and began to read. "To his Highness the Pope: This child is the son of a king and a queen of Britain. His father hight King Lot, the greatest king of Britain, and his mother hight Margawse, daughter of Uther Pendragon. The gifts sent by messenger are a token of appreciation and trust that you will raise our children in the best manner possible. Please save them from the devil worship of Merlin the Enchanter."

Arthur, clearly intrigued, rose from his throne. "Bring the children out."

The hall was completely silent as two dozen ten-year-old boys marched in. Meleri noted they were all wearing tunics and hose to match the fisherman. She also noticed one of the boys wore a hat and cloak and that the rest of the boys seemed to be looking to him for their cues. As she noticed this, the boy in the cloak and hat stepped forward and kneeled before Arthur, practically touching his nose to the ground. "Oh mighty king," rang his high voice, "we place ourselves at your mercy."

As if they had rehearsed this, the rest of the boys kneeled and, as one, intoned, "We have been lost for years and long to be home."

Arthur, not taking his eyes off the kneeling boys, addressed the court at large. "Britain is the refuge of the innocent and helpless. In this land, the strong defend the weak, and no one is helpless who lives within the law."

Meleri quietly gasped, remembering the eagle's second prophecy: "A boatload of children will make you marvel and fear."

"Guenevere," Arthur continued, "welcome these guests to our court. Kay, have a special table set up here before the high table, just for tonight. Cynrain, call out the messengers. Send along those herald fellows, on the fastest horses, to Queen Margawse. Tell her that her missing son has been found, and that she and all the other mothers robbed ten years ago should come to Camelot immediately."

As the children were led from the hall by Guenevere, Arthur raised his arms, beaming. "The stability and peace of he realm is welcome, and everyone is prospering. And look, our children have been returned to us! This is how the world ought to be."

A round of applause greeted the king's words. Looking around, Meleri at last caught sight of Lamorak. He had been in a side chamber prior to the arrival of the children; just beyond, Meleri could see the gleaming Round Table. Their eyes met and Lamorak made his way across the hall, smiling.

"I am pleased to see you," he said.

"And I you," she replied. "I feared for your safety. I heard rumors about the northern campaign..."

"It was...difficult," said Lamorak, his shoulders slouching at the memory. "Those damned Picts. They refused to give open battle. Just attack and run, usually when we were at our most vulnerable. Many good knights lost their lives and for no gain."

"Well, you're home now," said Meleri smiling. "I'm here."

"And I am glad for it. I am due to depart on the morrow and feared I might miss you entirely."

"You're leaving again?" Meleri asked.

"I must return to Norgales before the winter sets in," Lamorak said, averting his gaze.

"Come back to Broughton with me for the winter," Meleri pleaded. "You have a daughter, you know."

Lamorak smiled at the news, but quickly grew sad again. "I cannot."

They were quiet for a time. "Sir Ontzlake of Levcomagus has asked for my hand," Meleri said at last.

"Has he? A wise match. Ontzlake is a good knight, chivalrous and true. He will treat you and the child well."

"I see," said Meleri, fighting back tears. Lamorak covertly reached out and squeezed her hand. She squeezed back, but quickly excused herself.

She was on her way back to Salisbury within the hour.

Once back in Broughton, she had a letter sent to Earl Robert, indicating her acceptance of Sir Ontzlake's offer. A winter wedding was arranged and they were married at Sarum Castle on Yuletide Eve. Meleri now found herself the wife of the steward of Levcomagus and made preparations to move to the Silchester city on the other side of the Harewood.

Ontzlake proved himself to be every bit the noble husband Meleri could have hoped for. Her residence at Levcomagus was well appointed and she found her standard of living greatly improved. But as she got settled in, her mind and her heart were never far from Lamorak, far away in Norgales...


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