Monday, October 31, 2011

[Solo GPC] 523: Grave Concerns

So as I mentioned in a recent post, the Solo GPC has been on a brief hiatus in order to avoid Pendragon burnout. "Unthinkable!" I hear you cry, but alas it is possible. In fairness, this was owing to the fact that Des is currently running Pendragon for our regular group (a write-up of the first phase of which should be coming along sometime in November) timed with a mild case of generalized GM burnout on my part. Having taken a break from running anything more than short mini-campaigns and painting lots of miniatures over the last two months has cured the latter condition, and being "just" a player has gotten me itching to get back into the Pendragon saddle. So regular Solo GPC sessions should be starting up again soon.

In the meantime, here's the long-overdue summary from our last session, which we played, uh, a while ago. First week of September, maybe? At any rate, posting it now is rather timely, as the session turned out to be pretty creepy and well worthy of All Hallows goings-on...
We had left things off the previous session on a bittersweet note: Meleri had accepted the proposal of Sir Ontzlake, Steward of Levcomagus, and married him at Yule. Now the wife of a high-ranking official, she moved her primary residence to Levcomagus, bringing along her family - or most of it. Her eldest son, Loholt, was turning 12 this year and was due to be sent away to serve at a foreign court and begin his training as a knight. Meleri had several candidates in mind, but these were trumped by a request from Earl Robert (thanks to a roll on the Yearly Event table); his wife, Countess Katherine, had specifically requested Loholt be sent to the court of her father at Uffington. Meleri didn't much care for this - there was hardly any love lost between her and Katherine and she suspected a power play on the Countess's part, but in light of the many favors Robert had done her she consented to the request. Shortly after Easter preparations were made for Loholt to be sent off to distant Uffington in the shadow of the White Horse.

The night before the lad's departure, Ontzlake threw a small feast in Loholt's honor. As the feast was getting under way, a stranger presented himself at the hall. He was a tall and strapping knight with skin the color of porcelain and hair so fair as to be almost white. His surcoat, which was the purest white, bore a gold cross as its only heraldic device. Although she had never seen the man before, Meleri guessed his identity based on his reputation: this was the White Knight, notorious for being the only knight to turn down a seat on the Round Table.

"My lord, I am sorry to disturb you. I shall not tarry long," said the White Knight. "I am seeking dedicated Christians to form a spiritual brotherhood that will emulate the rigorous virtues of both knights and monks. We will be a brotherhood dedicated to the unification of the spiritual and chivalrous ways of life, and be called the Temple of the Holy Grail. Interested?"

The Knight's speech was met with bemused silence. Inwardly, Meleri started at the realization that another of the talking eagle's predictions had come true: "A white knight will also be a monk."

Finding his message coolly received, the White Knight excused himself, politely brushing aside Ontzlake's offers of food and board for the evening. Talk centered on the remarkable Knight for a time before turning to the events of the year previous: people were still buzzing about the appearance of the May Babies at court. Arthur had granted demesne lands in Lothian to Margawse's son - "What was his name? Mordat? Mordrec? Mordet? Something like that?" - and the other children had been appointed to the boy's household. There was also much talk of the "Triple Questers" - Gawaine, Yvaine, and Marhaus - and their adventures in the Forest Arroy. They had returned from their self-imposed exile this year to find welcome back at Camelot.

"Did you hear what Sir Yvaine did? What a terrific hero he is, and especially being so young! How old is the lad? 20? 25?"

"No, only 19, I am sure."

"I guess Sir Gawaine still has something to learn about women after all. Did you know that he caused Lady Ettard to kill herself out of longing for Sir Peleus?"

"Sir Marhaus is the one who slew a giant, you know. And jousted down four Round Table knights with one lance! What a man."

Meleri sat in silence listening to the gossip of the courtiers around her. She was still getting used to their faces and names in her new home. As she took a sip of wine, she decided she'd visit Broughton once the weather cleared a bit, check in on Sir Haegirth, who she'd left in charge as steward.

Loholt departed for Uffington the next day and Meleri busied herself with supervising spring cleaning and the myriad tasks that befell the lady of a grand urban manor such as Levcomagus. It wasn't until a couple weeks before the solstice that she found time to think again about her visit to Broughton.

"My lord," she said to Ontzlake one evening as she was doing the darning while he sat poring over account sheets from the city's latest round of tax collection, "I intend to travel to Broughton soon to check in on my lands."

Ontzlake looked up and smiled. "Very well, my lady," he said. "By your leave, I will accompany you. I would like a bit of travel now the weather is pleasant." Meleri agreed to this and plans were made to move Ontzlake's court to Broughton for several weeks. There was much talk of the fine hunting and hawking to be had in the woods around the old manor, and messengers were sent to Earl Robert to arrange a meeting between the neighboring lords; Ontzlake was ever anxious to patch up the bad blood that had existed for so long between Salisbury and Levcomagus.

Having arrived at Broughton shortly after Pentecost, the party settled in. Even though she was only separated from her old home by about 20 miles and a stretch of light woods, Meleri felt she was returning from a foreign land. She enjoyed being back among familiar sights and sounds and was welcomed warmly by the villeins and by her steward, Sir Haegirth.

Three nights after arriving, however, Haegirth approached Meleri with an anxious look on his face.

"My lady," he said, "I have finally remembered why I was in the vicinity of that old cemetery where you found me wandering insensate."

"Do go on!" Meleri said, her curiosity piqued.

"Well...I was on a quest," said Haegirth, his features screwed up from the effort of remembering. "That much is certain. What is also certain is that I was to retrieve a-a thighbone. From a grave."

"I see," said Meleri, somewhat puzzled by the bizarre nature of this quest. "Why would you want to do such a thing?"

"I...don't know," said Haegirth miserably. "I still cannot remember who set me the task, or indeed if anyone but myself desired the bone. Why I might have, I cannot say."

"And how do you fair with your demons?" Meleri asked, inquiring about the spirits that had taken possession of Haegirth and driven him mad in the graveyard.

"The potion provided by Queen Morgan keeps them at bay, but they are not happy and the potion is running low."

"Then I propose we return to the old graveyard and set about retrieving that bone," said Meleri. "Perhaps in finally completing the quest you will find some release from your torments."

"My lady!" exclaimed Haegirth, sinking to his knees in gratitude.

And so arrangements were made to journey to Gloucester. Ontzlake would, naturally, be riding along, but most of his court would remain at Broughton. Meleri could have stayed as well, but her natural curiosity compelled her to go as well - she was quite interested in getting to the bottom of this strange mystery.

It was a blustery summer day when the two knights and the lady set off across the Salisbury Plain, their squires and retinue in tow. At Sarum, Ontzlake stopped to pay his respects to Earl Robert and make arrangements for a longer get-together upon his return to the county. After four days of riding, the party passed out of Salisbury and turned north, riding through Somerset under golden clouds.

By and by, they came upon the mouth of the Severn River. They rode along the banks of the mighty watercourse for two days; shortly after setting out on the third day they happened upon a strange sight.

A small islet sat just off the main bank of the river. On the isle grew a single large elder tree. Beneath its branches on one side sat a silk pavilion tent; on the other side there was a small marble tomb. Three ladies stood around the tomb, weeping and wailing terribly.

Naturally intrigued, the party rode over towards the isle. Ontzlake hailed the ladies from the bank and they turned, wiping tears from their pale and wan faces. Meleri could see that they looked to be in a sorry state: they were underfed, their skin was waxen, their eyes dim and red-rimmed.

"Are you ladies from the Other Side?" Meleri inquired gently.

"You may well call us fee for how we look," said the eldest, "but we are in truth flesh and blood such as yourself. We look as we do because we are bound to remain on this island at the side of this tomb until the good knight who lies within, a good and worthy king, is properly avenged. The king was our father and was treacherously slain by another knight."

"Who did this?" Meleri asked at once.

"We cannot say," said another of the fees.

"Who lies within the tomb?" asked Ontzlake.

"Come over to the island and swear to avenge his death and we will tell you."

"We'll give you anything you wish in return," said the third fee.

Meleri exchanged a look with the other two knights. A moment passed, the decision was made, and they rode across the shallow brook separating the isle from the shore. Ontzlake and Haegirth dismounted and knelt before the ladies.

"We swear to avenge the death of your father upon whomever might have perpetrated this heinous crime," they intoned.

"Then arise," said the eldest lady, "and know that the king who lies within the tomb is none other than Pellinore de Gales."

"No!" Meleri exclaimed.

"Would that it were not so, but it is," said the lady sadly.

"This is a terrible blow," said Ontzlake, his face almost as pale as the fees.

"Come into our tent and sup with us," said the second lady.

The food provided was meager and so was the information the ladies provided. They had no clue as to the identity of Pellinore's murderer. They also swore the trio to secrecy: "Our father's murderer cannot know that there are knights looking for him else he might flee the country."

After the somber repast had wrapped up, Meleri and her entourage resumed their journey north. She was greatly disturbed by news of Pellinore's death. Only a couple years had passed since she had used her healing powers to bring him back from the brink of death. She had liked the old man and his wily, randy, pagan sensibilities. And she loved one of his sons, Lamorak.

By day's end, they were nearing Gloucester. Haegirth guided the party up a side road that rose along a gentle slope before descending into a vale. In the vale lay the old cemetery, in use since Roman times. It was bounded by a rusting iron fence and was slowly being overtaken by the encroaching wild. Trees and bracken grew up among the stones and tombs, their roots tilting some of the stones or turning them over entirely. In the center of the graveyard sat an old stone church, its belfry crumbling, many shingles missing from its roof.



"Cheerful place," Meleri remarked sardonically.

"Aye, there is naught but a great quest that could have compelled me to enter these forsaken grounds," said Haegirth, cold sweat beading his brow.

"What say we get in there and get the bone before the sun goes down?" said Meleri. "I would not want to linger here past dark, nor do I want to stay in this vicinity any longer than necessary."

"Agreed," said Ontzlake and Haegirth together.

The trio left their entourage at the crest of the vale to set up camp, then entered the cemetery and began searching the graves.

"What are we looking for, Haegirth?" asked Meleri.

"I will know it when I see it..." said Haegirth, clearly distressed.

The party searched as best they could, but the graveyard's size and condition both worked against them. Meleri became aware of the gathering gloom and was about to suggest they retire for the day and come back in the morning when a great cold keening wind kicked up. Darkness seemed to gather unnaturally quickly overhead; the sky grew dim, but no stars or moon came out of the inky blackness. As the party began to quickly make its way towards the cemetery gates, they saw a spectral host assembling just outside the boundaries of the fence. Looking back, Meleri saw more ghosts rising up out of their graves, armed and armored for battle. The trio changed course and took shelter against the cold marble wall of an ancient tomb, watching tensely.

The gusts died down slightly but the wailing of the wind was replaced by a great spectral cry from the two ghostly hosts as they charged each other. A great battle erupted among the gravestones. Ontzlake and Haegirth stood, swords out, protecting Meleri, who stood with her back to the tomb. She hoped that the ghosts would not harm the living, but these hopes were dashed when a half-dozen specters charged the two knights.

A fierce battle ensued. The ghosts were immune to the hurts of mortals, but with enough beating and battering they could be reduced to a hazy mist. It was taxing work, and both knights were soon gasping for breath beneath their helms.

"Back to the church!" Meleri cried. She was not thinking of it as any kind of holy shelter, simply a physical barrier against further attacks. Ontzlake and Haegirth executed a fighting withdrawal and soon the party was inside the moldering chapel. The sounds of ghostly battle could be heard all around. In the dim spectral light filtering in through the windows, Meleri could make out a dusty altar. On the wall behind was mounted a rusted spear from which hung an ancient, tattered war banner.

Haegirth, almost insensate with fear at this point, collapsed before the altar, sobbing. Ontzlake kept nervous watch on the doors of the church. Some time passed and they were not bothered as the battle raged on outside. Then a ghost warrior burst through one of the church windows and fighting resumed.

Meleri and Haegirth huddled in fear as Ontzlake battled his undead foe. No sooner had he dispatched this threat than the church doors flew open and two more knights charged in. Ontzlake, bleeding from multiple wounds, was victorious in this fight as well, but sank to the floor, nearly unconscious, as the last ghost dissipated. Meleri rushed to his side to tend his wounds but had barely gotten started when another ghost came charging in through the open door. Ontzlake rose again to fight and was run through by the ghost's spear.

The ghost looked down upon Meleri, its eyes blazing with hatred, and raised its spear to strike again. At that precise moment, a ray of sunlight blazed through the eastern window and the ghost faded into nothingness.

Turning, Meleri saw the ray of light hit the altar, which seemed to glow with a white light. The glow was coming from an altar cloth that had mysteriously appeared, draped over the altar. Without a word, Meleri advanced towards the altar, extending a hand to take the cloth. As her hand drew near, however, the cloth jerked away as if yanked by an invisible string. It floated away from her and as she reached for it again it once again tried to jerk away. She was too quick for it however, and she seized a corner of the cloth which tore away from the rest. [Des needed a Crit on Merciful to grab the cloth and managed one on her first try!]

Meleri took the fragment of altar cloth to Ontzlake and bound the spear wound with it. At once, Ontzlake revived. The blood that soaked into the altar cloth dissipated, leaving the fabric a gleaming white again. She then took the cloth to Haegirth and pressed it against his heart. There was a great whooshing noise and Meleri saw Haegirth's eyes change from a muddled brown to bright blue.

"My lady!" said Haegirth, rising. "The demons are gone, I am sure of it!"

Meleri and Haegirth returned to Ontzlake and helped him to his feet. He was sore and weak, but alive. The party emerged, blinking, into the milky morning light. Haegirth, his senses restored, was able to quickly locate the grave he had been searching for: it was an ancient grave, little more than a cairn, tucked away in an overgrown corner of the cemetery. It didn't take much digging to uncover a pile of old bones, and Haegirth gingerly extracted a crumbling femur from the lot.

He straightened up, smiling. "Now I just need to remember what exactly I was supposed to..." He trailed off, sudden realization clouding his face. At the same time, Meleri spotted three great ravens, each as big as a horse, descending from the skies. "NO!" Haegirth screamed, and he began to run, but the ravens overtook him easily. Haegirth was borne aloft in the talons of one of giant ravens, who wheeled about and flew off to the north, Haegirth's screams fading into the still morning air.

Meleri had run after Haegirth and now stood at the iron fence, tears streaking her cheeks. "That poor man," she said.

"Shall we go after him?" asked Ontzlake.

"You are fit only for bed rest, husband," she said. "And as for poor Haegirth, it seems his lot in life is to suffer one ill omen after another."

Sadly, then, Ontzlake and Meleri departed the perilous cemetery, returning to the camp at the top of the vale. They were greeted warmly by their entourage, who had watched, paralyzed with fear, through the night as the spectral horde had descended on the graveyard; they had feared no one would emerge alive in the morning.

The party rode out of the vale, intending to make for the city of Gloucester where Ontzlake could spend some time recuperating before they set out for Salisbury and Silchester. On the road, they came upon a solitary knight riding south. They hailed him, hoping that he might have seen Haegirth. As he rode up to them, Meleri realized with a start that he bore the coat of arms of a member of the de Gales clan, marking him as a direct relation of Pellinore.

She described Haegirth's abduction and the knight listened solemnly. "I have not seen any trace of your friend," he said, his face grave, "but it sounds as if he was borne away by the Raven Witches. Ever do they trouble the local lord with their machinations. They hold a tower in defiance of the Duke's authority, its ramparts patrolled by their many enthralled knights."

This news only strengthened Meleri's reluctance to pursue Haegirth. Perhaps he was better off living out his life as the brainwashed servant of a coven of witches, she rationalized. At any rate, she had a question for this passing knight.

"Sir, are you a relation of the de Gales clan?" she asked.

"Indeed I am," he said proudly. "I am Sir Melodiam de Gales."

"Then I suggest you take the river road south. Ride on until you see a small isle crowned by an elder tree. You will find something of great and terrible interest to you there," she said. Melodiam gave her a quizzical look but said he would do as she asked.

Meleri rode on at the head of her entourage, her mind troubled by the great dooms that were befalling those around her. After another day's travel, the party arrived at the city of Gloucester, where they were well-received by the Duke. They spent a month as his guests, being treated to great Roman hospitality. Presently, Ontzlake was well enough to travel again and they departed for their homelands.

Arriving back in Salisbury, Ontzlake made plans to spend some time at the court of Robert but these plans were cut short almost immediately when word reached Salisbury of a rebellion in Silchester! Count Uffo, the son of the late Duke Ulfius, had risen against Arthur and the city of Silchester itself was under siege. Hurriedly, Ontzlake returned to Levcomagus, Meleri and his court in tow. The year waned and, fortunately, the rebellion did not spread to Levcomagus. Uffo and his rebels had themselves become trapped in Silchester's walls when the king's army had come marching in, and as the first flakes of snow began to fall the city remained under siege, still defying Gawaine and Griflet. News had reached Levcomagus that the two knights had each offered to fight Uffo in single combat to resolve the entire issue, but Uffo had refused. Uffo had counter-offered to surrender on the condition that he be allowed to go free, but Griflet had also rejected this. And so stalemate set in.

[This year's adventures nicely showcased how well things are working with having an entourage of hench-knights at Meleri's disposal. Des took over Ontzlake and Haegirth during all the exciting action scenes when there was little for Meleri to do; the fact it was her dice rolls that were determining the fate of Meleri's companions during the desperate battle against the ghost knights really added to the excitement and tension of the scene.]
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