Prior to my break, my outline for the next few years of the GPC was full of lots of question marks and vague statements. I just wasn't sure what to do with Meleri's storyline that would be exciting and different. Coming back from the break, I have a definite plan and can't wait to see how things will play out. It all hinged on this year and the adventure I had lined up. It's one of the few full-length adventures in the GPC, found in an Appendix in the back and meant to be dropped in at pretty much any point. And the best part? The adventure intro noted that the scenario was "easily adapted" to running for a lady character!
And so 525 would find Lady Meleri paying a visit to the Goblin Market...
|Art by Charles Vess|
We actually picked things up still in the year 524. Meleri was spending Christmas Court at Camelot, enticed to stay by the return of the Knight of the Lake, who came riding into the city just as the first snows of winter were falling.
Before a packed court, the young knight related his adventures, culminating in his arrival at the forsaken citadel of Dolorous Garde. He told of coming to the night-haunted halls of the keep, now the lair of an evil, undead enchanter. He battled lions, ghost knights, copper giants, and finally the necromancer himself. After felling his foes, the young knight moved a massive boulder in the courtyard, revealing his true name and heritage written beneath: Lancelot, son of King Ban of Benwick.
The court hailed this great young knight and Arthur toasted him: "At last, all is well. We have peace, and as this young Sir Lancelot has shown to us, the great and talented knights of the world continue to come to Camelot to join our fellowship. Our thanks and blessing to all."
Meleri observed "this young Lancelot" as he moved about the court. He had a natural grace about him, but also a hint of danger and sadness, even at this young age. Her heart warmed at the sight of him and she felt that she was witnessing the paragon of knighthood at last. She also noted his sword was girded about his waist even though she'd heard that Lancelot had departed from Camelot the year before prior to his knighting ceremony being finished; if Arthur had not girded the knight's sword, who had?
After Yule, Meleri made the cold journey back to Levcomagus where she settled in and tended to the tasks required of a great lord's wife. She was again pregnant and delivered the child - another daughter! - before Easter. She had not come to full term and the child was born sickly, nearly perishing soon after delivery. Meleri personally saw to the babe's care and with her tender ministrations it grew stronger and healthier, but there was little doubt it was to be a runty child. Meleri wondered how much longer she could continue to bear children.
Sir Ontzlake, meanwhile, was beginning to dwell increasingly on attaining a seat on the Round Table. To that end, he announced his plan to attend the Pentecost Tournament this year, hoping that a win there might secure him a coveted seat. Preparations were made to bring the whole family along and so a great noble train departed Levcomagus in May, the cruel winter months a distant memory, setting off for Camelot.
Arriving a week before Pentecost, Ontzlake's entourage found the city already crammed with people. Old Archbishop Dubricus was stepping down to pursue a life of quiet hermitage; Bishop David was to be elevated to the position of Primate of Britain, and it seemed every priest on the isle had turned out for the event.
Nevertheless, it was talk of Lancelot that dominated dinner conversations. Tales of his adventures were told and retold, mostly with great approval. As a participant in one of Lancelot's great deeds from the year before, Meleri often found herself the center of attention. She was even asked to compose a poem about her rescue at Lancelot's hands, but couldn't manage the task. Meleri also noted Sir Kay was among Lancelot's detractors - whenever he could, he'd interject his opinions that Lancelot wouldn't be great without his (rumored) magical ring, shield, and sword.
Meleri was more concerned by the behavior of the knights who grew in number with each passing day as the tournament grew closer. She witnessed frequent squabbles, drunken brawls, and petty bickering. Sir Griflet, in conversation with her and Ontzlake at Arthur's court one day, weighed in, opining that Britain's knights were growing bored and restless now that there were no more great battles to be fought.
"Sir Marhaus has gone away you know, returned to his homeland of Ireland," Griflet continued. "I heard his kinsmen are having difficulties, so who can blame him for going back, I suppose. But what a dreary place to go. Imagine going from the sophistication of Camelot to someplace as primitive as Dublin! Still, perhaps there will be opportunities for glorious battle there..."
"Still no sign of Merlin, then?" Ontzlake asked.
"Nay, though a thousand knights have searched for him," said Griflet. "Maybe he is truly dead?"
Meleri was only half-listening. She had spotted Lamorak in attendance at the king's court; they managed a few assignations over the next few days. After a hectic and exhausting week, the first day of the Pentecost tournament arrived. As always, it was to be kicked off by a grand feast in the Keep of Gold's massive hall. And as always Arthur refused to start the feast until a marvel or wonder had appeared. Everyone assembled in the hall in the morning, taking their seats or else mingling among the tables. Meleri chatted gaily with Lamorak as Ontzlake played chess with Sir Tor. An hour passed. Another hour. Then a runner came dashing into court, hurling himself before Arthur in a positively indecorous manner. The king bent his ear to the runner as everyone craned their necks to see what was going on. Arthur stood.
"To the Great Court, everyone. I think that this is not the type of marvel which Merlin would have planned."
Arthur, Guenevere, and the king's advisors then departed through a small door behind a tapestry. Everyone else filed out the main doors of the hall and made their way along a covered portico or else out through the bailey, forming a scrum at the entrance to the Great Court. Meleri took up a position with the other ladies towards the back of the Court as most of the knights crowded forward towards Arthur's high throne. The king, having arrived before everyone else, was seated on his throne, Guenevere radiant on her own throne at his left; to the right sat the empty throne reserved for Arthur's eventual heir. Arthur's advisors - Sir Bedivere the Cup Bearer, Sir Kay the Seneschal, and Sir Cynrain the Castellan among them - had taken up positions on the stairs mounting the throne. A dozen armored Round Table knights stood guard at the foot of the dais. The hall was so packed with people that only a narrow, red-carpeted aisle leading from the great doors to the throne was open.
"Send 'em back to Rome!" The shout came from somewhere in the crowd, which responded with a mix of appreciative chuckles and scandalized gasps.
"Silence!" Arthur yelled. "Let no one bring insult in my hall!"
The Roman delegation stopped at the foot of the throne dais. The tribune and Senators inclined their heads to Arthur in the slightest of bows. The tribune then spoke, his voice ringing out through the empty hall.
"The high and mighty Emperor Lucius sends his greetings to you, King Arthur,
and with it a command to acknowledge him as your lord and to send the tribute which is due from Britain to Rome. Your father, and the kings before him paid, as is on record. But you, a rebel who does not know custom, withhold your tribute contrary to the decrees of Julius Caesar, conqueror of your realm and first Emperor of Rome.
"And if you refuse this commandment, know for certain that Emperor Lucius will make strong war against you, and against your land, and make an example of you and your people for all princes to submit to the noble empire which rules the whole world."
Meleri was unsure what to make of this development. On the one hand, she thought the Romans had some cheek to come back after so great an absence and demand tribute. On the other [and with a fumbled Loyalty (Pendragon) roll], she felt the Romans were at least due a fair hearing; they had, after all, ruled Britain for nearly four centuries. Many of the other lords and ladies in the hall were much less ambivalent in their feelings, however. Many of the knights drew swords or daggers, threatening the envoys. The tribune remained unmoved by this violent demonstration and Arthur raised his hands for calm.
"Stop!" he shouted. "Anyone who harms these envoys will pay with his own life. These Romans are great lords, and though their message pleases neither me nor my court, I must remember my honor.
"Sir Bedivere," said the king, "Bring these men to their lodging, and see that they have all that is necessary or desired, and with good cheer. Spare no dainty for them while I confer with my court to prepare an answer."
"Gather to me, soldiers. Now is the time for those veterans of ten battles to be leaders of ten staunch men, and those of us who know a hundred will each lead a hundred more. We go to fight the greatest and worthiest foe in the world: Mother Rome herself!"
At the back of the Court, Meleri saw mostly worried faces among the ladies. They all knew what war would mean: many of their husbands would not be returning, and even those who did would be gone for years most likely.
After some time, Arthur and his advisors filed back into the hall. "Send for the envoys," commanded Arthur. When the Romans had once again assembled before the king, Arthur gave his decree.
"Envoys of Rome, return to your lord, the Emperor Lucius, and tell him that his demand means nothing to me. I know of no tribute or loyalty I owe to him, nor to any earthly prince, Christian or pagan. In fact, I know I am entitled to be sovereign of the Empire by right of my predecessors. I have learned that Belinus and Brennius, kings of Britain of old, conquered Rome. And also Constantine, the son of Saint Helen, was a Briton. By our right of being descended from them, we have the right to claim the title of Emperor ourselves!
"Tell him that I have fully decided to go with my army to Rome, and God willing, take possession of the empire. Wherefore I command him, and all Romans, to come to me and pay homage to me as their Emperor and Governor, or else suffer the pains of war.
"Sir Kay, give these envoys gifts suitable to their stations, and pay all their expenses incurred coming here, and departing here. Sir Cynrain, escort these men with my safe passage out of our country."
The envoys departed to a chorus of whistles and hisses. As the last of the party disappeared through the great doors, a great cheer was raised. Many knights immediately rushed from the hall, anxious to return home and begin preparing for the war. Meleri noted that Sir Lamorak was among that number. As she watched him depart, Sir Ontzlake approached, his eyes alight.
"This war will be my ticket onto the Round Table!" he proclaimed excitedly. "Come, we must return to Levcomagus to settle our affairs and make ready my departure in the coming campaign season!"
And so Meleri rode with her children and entourage back to Levcomagus. Once back at the city, she saw to helping Ontzlake prepare for an overseas journey. As the summer passed, Ontzlake looked increasingly preoccupied. Finally, over dinner one night, he made his feelings known.
"There is a chance the army could be gone for a year, maybe more," he said. "I've been thinking. I don't like the idea of you here alone. As admirably as you conducted yourself under the threat of Sir Damas's besieging force, if something of that nature were to happen again...there would be no relieving army two days' march away to rely on for rescue.
"So...I was thinking, perhaps you would pass the lonely months in greater comfort and safety if you were back in your homeland. Say, the court of Countess Katherine?"
Meleri blanched. She despised Katherine and most of the courtiers at Sarum.
"The walls of Sarum are second only to Camelot in their grandeur and safety," Ontzlake continued quickly. "And Earl Robert is sure to leave a suitable force behind to man its walls. Uffo's rebellion has left Silchester leaderless for the time-being and the countryside is not safe as it once was. Bandits and worse," Ontzlake finished ominously.
He gave Meleri an imploring look. She cast her eyes down, nodding assent. She knew she was bound by her husband's wishes regardless, but she also knew he had a point. Still, she couldn't help but feel things were going from bad to worse - a year or more in the company of Countess Katherine!
She took some solace in the knowledge that she would not be departing for that cold welcome until the following year. Or so she thought. As September and the harvest came to a close, Levcomagus welcomed the arrival of none other than Sir Lamorak. Meleri was at first elated until she found out why he had come. He told her in a private audience in her solar.
"I have organized a raiding force to sail the Channel and seize Barfleur as a bridgehead for next year's invasion. I have asked Ontzlake to accompany me on the expedition and he has agreed."
"I see," said Meleri, her stomach plunging. Lamorak reached inside his tunic and withdrew a satchel hanging on a leather thong.
"I take this with me as well," he said. He opened the satchel and removed the lock of hair Meleri had given him several years ago.
Meleri smiled. "Do you leave me with no token of your own?" she asked.
Lamorak removed his signet ring and gave it to her. "Keep it close to your heart," he said. They moved into an embrace and shared a soulful goodbye kiss. Then, with a courteous bow, he turned and departed.
Ontzlake's imminent departure moved up Meleri's own trip to Sarum as well. Much sooner than expected, she was leaving Levcomagus with her court, bound west for her homeland of Salisbury and the fortress-city of Sarum. After traveling for several days, including a stop at her manor in Broughton, she arrived at the Countess's court. As expected, Earl Robert was not there, having gone off on Lamorak's raid as well, but strangely Katherine was not there to meet Meleri either; she was met instead by Father Dewi, the Earl's confessor. At first Meleri wondered if she was being deliberately snubbed. The court seemed strangely subdued, however, and she began to suspect something else was going on.
Food was served and Meleri was about halfway through her meal when she distinctly heard a high-pitched, far-off wailing noise. Looking up from her stew, she noted most of the other courtiers seeming not to notice the noise - or perhaps pretending not to.
"What was that?" she asked Father Dewi. He shrugged noncommittally, but in seconds no one in that hall could feign deafness any longer. The wail became increasingly louder and more keening, a mounting shriek of frustration.
"What in the name of all the spirits is that?" Meleri [failing both her Courtesy and Hospitality rolls] asked.
"Very well," said Father Dewi, looking quite upset as he rose from the table. "Follow me."
Meleri followed Dewi out of the hall to a tower staircase. The door was closed and locked, but Father Dewi produced a key from his pocket and unlocked it. Without a word, he proceeded up the stairs, Meleri following in his wake.
At the top of the stairs was a sad scene indeed. In a small chamber was a bed shrouded with curtains. Meleri recognized Lady Gwiona, the Countess's chief handmaiden, seated at the bedside, dabbing the forehead of the bed's inhabitant with a cloth swabbed in warm water and spices. Father Dewi drew the curtain aside and Meleri saw an aged woman lying in the bed, sobbing quietly. She looked vaguely familiar, but Meleri couldn't quite place the face. She was a portrait of misery, whoever she was.
Father Dewi let the curtain fall back and laid a hand on Gwiona's shoulder. The maid set her cloth aside and rose, silently following Dewi out of the room. Meleri accompanied them to the bottom of the stairs, where Father Dewi turned to speak.
"The woman who lies at the top of the stairs is none other than Countess Katherine," he said. Meleri's hands flew to her mouth, suppressing a gasp of horror. Tears leaked from Gwiona's eyes as she nodded confirmation of the Father's revelation. "Not two months ago she was as young and gay as ever," Dewi continued. "Then, a terrible curse was laid upon her, reducing her to the condition you saw. Her maid was there and can tell you more. Go on."
Choking back tears, Gwiona picked up the story. "I blame myself for all that follows. We were in the fields nearby, gathering wildflowers to brighten the keep, when we heard the cry of the Goblin Market in the distance. I'll never forget their terrible cry: 'Come buy our orchard fruits, come buy, come buy! Sweet to tongue and sound to eye; come buy, come buy!'" I quavered in fear of this call, but my lady Katherine said she would go and see the Goblin-men and the fruit they boasted of. I tried to dissuade her from tasting the Goblins' fruits - who knows on what soil they fed their hungry, thirsty roots? - but she would not listen.
"I did follow her, I did, but could find her not, though it were many hours that I searched. Then at last, at the deepest part of night, she returned from those darkened woods, stains upon her chin and bodice and said, ‘Never have I tasted the like. I will return tomorrow, and partake of more of their fruits.’
"She would not say another word, not the whole day, until the next evening when she started to cry. She could no longer see or hear the Goblin-men, nor any night thereafter, though I could hear them, with their mocking laughter, in the darkness."
Gwiona dissolved into tears and Father Dewi picked up the story as the maid excused herself. "And so it has been since that night, the Countess growing older, each week a year, and yet she still cries for the fruit of the Goblins. I fear she has had her soul stolen by these devils. They say you are learned in the diabolic arts. What say you?"
Ignoring the priest's ignorant language, Meleri thought on all she had heard. "It does indeed sound like the Countess's very soul is in jeopardy," she said. "I fear I may be the only one who might retrieve it and lift the curse. I have had dealings with the Good Folk, I know their ways."
"Many thanks and blessings be upon you, lady," said Dewi.
"I shall depart on the morrow," said Meleri. "I shall go accompanied only by my faithful dwarf servant, Higgins. And I must warn you, Father - I may pass into a realm where time passes differently than here. What seems a day to me may be several days...or weeks...to you. I pray the Countess is still alive when I return."
Meleri was shown to a small bedchamber where she made ready for her journey and caught as much sleep as she could. She was up and ready for departure by sunrise. Before retiring the night before, she had received directions from Gwiona pointing her to where Katherine had heard the sound of the Goblins. Meleri set out on the back of her favorite palfrey as the morning fog began to lift.
By midmorning she had come to the shallow vale that Gwiona had spoken of. A line of woods stretched across her field of vision in the near distance, but closer still she saw a peasant lounging on a stump. His face was ruddy and bloated, but his clothes were of particularly fine make. He wore a doublet and hose of bright green and on his head was perched at a jaunty angle a red hat set with a long quail's feather. Meleri had never seen a peasant dressed quite like this.
At her approach, he lazily hailed Meleri with a yawn and a casual wave.
"A good day to you, most noble lady. Why do you travel these lonesome dales at such an ungodly hour?"
Meleri glanced at the sun, well above the horizon, and wondered how shiftless someone would have to be to consider this an "ungodly hour" of the morning.
"Who are you?" she asked sharply.
The peasant at last got to his feet and recited a poem:
The gossip and the wise old aunt
The tailor and the bean-fed horse
Do know me as a good fellow true.
To call me Robin is no sin, for
No better name my mother knew.
Story and song pay my bed and board
The kindness of strangers paves my way
Many have partaken of my lore
I would offer it to you, if I may.
Meleri reached in her purse and extracted a silver penny, which she handed down to Robin. He bit the coin, smiled and placed it in his pocket, then bowed to her.
"I would know where the Goblin Market can be found," Meleri said to Robin as he smiled unctuously up at her.
"Of a certainty I have heard of that strange market, good lady, and for a few pence more, I might even show you the way. But I must inform you, dame, that I have heard they sell strange fruit there, of which it is better not to partake. Worse, the Market is near to the Fair of the Woods, which is a place of the Good Folk, and it is never wise to meddle in their affairs…"
Meleri could see Robin was indeed knowledgeable, but she feared that in order to retrieve Katherine's soul she might have to ignore his warnings and venture to the Fair regardless. "Lead on," she said, handing him more coins.
Robin skipped ahead, leading Meleri towards the distant woods. After a half-day of travel they passed under the boughs of the trees. The setting sun barely penetrated the overhanging canopy and Meleri was soon in shadow; soon after she could hear a melodic chant: "Come buy our orchard fruits! Come buy, come buy!"
By a small stream, Meleri could make out a strange scene. Several dozen small men clustered around, bearing silver cups and golden platters overflowing with juicy, scrumptious fruits. The men wore wide hats and baggy cloaks, but these could not wholly disguise their bestial features: clawed hands, the occasional tail, and a wide variety of startling faces. Meleri saw cat faces and dog faces, mouse faces and bird faces. And they saw her. As a single mass, they surged forward, pulling Meleri from her horse and mobbing her. "Come buy! Come buy! Good fruits, yes! You eat!"
Meleri dashed away a platter of fruit that was being shoved in her face; the morsels did indeed seem more tempting than any food she'd ever been presented with, but she knew that to take even one bite would be to forfeit her soul.
She grabbed a goblin by the hem of its cloak. "Where is Lady Katherine's soul?" she interrogated.
"Ack! Gerroff!" the goblin bellowed. The others, instantly dropping their supplicant attitudes, began to mob Meleri viciously, tearing at her clothes and attempting to bite her flesh and scratch out her eyes. She drew her dagger and began swinging, sending goblins flying off of her with piteous cries.
"Back! Back!" she yelled, felling one goblin after another. Even with several goblins clinging to her arms, she soon laid seven out on the ground. The rest of the group began to scatter in terror. With her usual whiplash reaction time, she reached out and grabbed the long ears of a hare-headed goblin.
"Oy! Gerroff me!" the gobin piped in a rabbity voice.
"Tell me what you've done with Countess Katherine's soul!" she said, shaking the rabbit by its ears.
"Wot? A lady's soul? Not 'round 'ere, missus - ow! Alright! I'll tell ye wot ye wish, I will. A great stranger, cloaked up in black and 'ooded, 'e was. 'E came ter us, traded us sweetmeats fer the soul, 'e did. 'E 'ad glowin' red eyes and said 'e wos from the Fair!"
"Lead me," said Meleri.
Meleri followed the goblin along a nearly-invisible forest path. So intent was she on tracking the hopping creature she failed to note the growing intensity of the colors of the darkened forest, the fresher smells of loam and lichen, the fact that no birds twittered or creatures stirred at her passing. Had she noticed, she would have known she was passing to the Other Side and that, as an uninvited guest, was risking a fate worse than death.
Night had fallen and stars were peaking through the canopy overhead when Meleri reached the end of the trail, the rabbit-man bounding off into the brush. Before her, a great hall made from towering ash, elder, and oak trees contained a bustling market beneath its 100-foot ceiling. The floor of the hall was dewy grass and mossy rocks. Among the booths hung paper lanterns and lit torches sufficient in number to light the fair as well as daylight. Beyond the tents, Meleri could see a tournament area where knights jousted to the cheers of spectators. The tents themselves held all manner of great wonders: silks, tapestries, illuminated books, jewelry and gemstones, and more.
But the Fair's most notable aspect was not its wares but those who browsed the stalls. Meleri was certain she was the only human in that grove. And as she stared, all activity ceased and all eyes turned on her. She saw Unseelie Lords cloaked in shadow and mist, other Fae nobles who looked to be part tree, and great darkened trolls. Pixies fluttered about and squat-faced dwarves leered up at her. Higgins shifted uncomfortably at her side.
|Art by Larry MacDougall|
Meleri was frozen in place, petrified with fear. She watched as three figures detached themselves from the crowd and began marching towards her. Two, marching to either side, looked to be nothing more than small, wretched sprites. But as they walked they began growing, their black skin cracking and revealing pink, rubbery flesh beneath. By the time these strange creatures reached Meleri's quaking form, they stood 12 feet tall. Between them stood a powerful-looking man, a knight of towering build and martial mien. Limbs that had trod battlefields and raised weaponry high were his. He regarded Meleri with a piercing, disdainful look and spoke.
Not for many moons, nor in many days
Have we seen the like as thus we do now.
For none ’til now has dared what you essay
Without lore, without herald, without crown.
Still, whatever purpose leads thou hither
Shall not abate when thy fate turns awry.
However you came upon this heather,
Turn thee back: hold no hope within a lie.
Yet if you insist this wayward course,
Know that you must answer my riddle true,
Or else owe a boon to enter this place
And this day forever afterward rue.
"Speak on," said Meleri, attempting to collect herself.
I have a thing precious to me,
Long, deadly, and true,
Yet worth far more when shattered.
What is it?
Meleri knew the answer in an instant. "A lance broken at tourney joust," she said. The Marshal inclined his head and stepped aside, allowing Meleri free passage. Lifting her skirts, she hurried past and soon lost sight of the Marshal's piercing gaze among the labyrinthine stalls. She began to browse, hoping to find some clue to Countess Katherine's missing soul.
She saw many amazing wares on display. She saw jewel-encrusted swords, colorful silks from far-off Samarkand, wine made from grapes from Hy-Brasil. She was particularly intrigued by a cedar box set with good locks and engraved with scenes from the legend of Pandora.
"How much?" she inquired, pulling coins from her purse.
"Ah, we have little use for silver here!" squawked the toad-like proprietor. "A little honesty, though..."
Meleri felt her purse bulge with new coin. She realized she was going to have to trade a bit of herself for the box. She handed over two of these strange new coins, becoming a bit more Deceitful in the process. She had Higgins hoist the box on his broad back and moved along. She nearly bumped into an aging man in long robes as she departed the booth.
"Excuse me," she muttered, passing Merlin without recognizing him.
She saw many more wonders on display: a tapestry depicting the many adventures of her father Sir Herringdale (a treasure which sorely tempted her), a bejeweled and engraved chastity belt, a purse with drawstrings that could only be opened by the owner. She was even offered a lead dagger that could give power to the wielder if used to assassinate a lord, which she turned down.
Finally, after two circuits of the Fair, jostling through otherworldy shoppers, she spotted a small table set up among the twisting roots of an oak tree. It was little more than a rickety wooden platform, but it boasted five magnificent objects. Meleri moved closer.
She saw an ornate mechanical clock. As she looked at it, the hour chimed. A portal opened and from it marched a small metal knight. He swung a needle-like sword around, blustering in a tiny, tinny voice, before retiring. As she watched, Meleri was horrified to realize the knight was none other than Sir Haegirth!
Unnerved, she next picked up a small silver hand mirror. The reflection in the polished glass was not her own, but rather a ravaged and unrecognizable noblewoman. A puppet, dressed and painted as a gypsy, next caught Meleri's eye. As she looked away, she was sure the puppet's eyes were following her. Behind the puppet sat a gilded cage with a gorgeously plumed songbird within. Meleri realized the tune it was whistling was the very song she had heard sung at feasts at Camelot the year before.
Finally, Meleri spotted a miniature tableau under glass. It appeared to be a bedroom with various figures surrounding the bed. The figures and furniture were all constructed of dried flowers and other plants. There was a red rose on the bed, which curiously had not faded as the other flowers had. As Meleri stooped to examine the tableau more closely, a figure emerged from within the curtained recesses of the booth. Looking up, Meleri saw the figure wore a dark hooded cloak that didn't quite conceal eyes that burned like coals. The soul taker!
"May I help you?" the creature asked, its voice a sibilant whisper.
"How much for the clock and the tableau?" Meleri asked bravely.
"I deal only in trade," said the figure. "If you do not object to it, there is something that I desire. There is a circlet, well guarded in a cavern that is not far from the Fair. Return here with the circlet, and I shall give you the tableau and clock in trade. Are we agreed?"
"Very well," said Meleri. "Tell me the way to this cavern."
Soon Meleri was picking her way along an even more overgrown forest path, the noise of the Fair receding behind her. Overhead, the first hint of dawn could be seen in the night sky. Meleri was quite certain that if she failed to return before sunrise, the Fair would be gone. With an urgency to her step, she hurried on until she reached a rocky hillock. She could indeed see a cavern entrance, but it was guarded by two of the ugliest giants Meleri had ever seen. They were each at least twice as tall and wide as she, and they talked in grumbling voices that sounded like stones rolling down the side of a hill.
Meleri took a few minutes to think. "Higgins. Run that way and make sure the giants see you."
The dwarf gave Meleri a look of apprehension, but she nodded encouragingly. "Go on!"
Higgins trotted off and Meleri's deception worked; the giants lumbered after him, clearing the path to the cavern. Meleri proceeded within. Inside, she could see a crown suspended on a shaft of light. The circlet was made live oak branches studded with red berries and green leaves. As Meleri approached, a voice boomed out, "“Only those pure of heart and purpose can pass the test of flames!" With that, a great column of flame roared to life around the crown.
Taking a deep breath, Meleri concentrated on the purity of her task. She was doing this for her liege lord and his wife, not for her own personal gain. [With a successful Loyalty (Lord) roll] Meleri walked through the flame unharmed and took hold of the crown. In an instant, she was standing back at the merchant's table at the Fair, her hand still extended and now holding the crown.
The hooded figure rushed forward. "You have it! Excellent. Give it to me."
Meleri hesitated, pulling the crown back from the grasping fingers of the soul taker. "Why do you want this crown so badly?" she asked.
"It is not for you to know," snapped the figure, his voice hissing angrily. "We had a deal. Take the tableau and the clock for all I care - just give me the crown!"
Reluctantly, Meleri handed over the circlet and took her goods. As the dealer's hand closed over the crown, he let out a howl of joy. His cowl fell back, revealing the face of Robin the Minstrel.
"You!" Meleri shouted.
"What fools ye mortals be!" japed Robin as he danced around. Meleri could see his face taking on a more bestial cast as his ears lengthened somewhat and his features became more angular. "Did ye not reckon the depth of mine own cunning and spite? No peasant, but that Hobgoblin of famed lore, called the Puck am I!"
[At this point Des slapped her forehead in frustration - she's no stranger to Shakespeare and couldn't believe she'd missed the "Robin Goodfellow" connection. She exclaimed out of character, "Puck is it? Well, puck you!"]
Since she herself was a babe, Meleri had heard many tales of the mischievous, scheming Puck and how he always managed to get caught up in his own machinations. This time he seemed to have won, however. Triumphantly he placed the circlet on his head despite Meleri's best efforts to grab hold of him, proclaiming a little rhyme as he did so:
All claim love for Robin Goodfellow,
Yet do curse the Puck behind his back.
Thus must Hobgoblin, shorn a home,
Discover fane to fill the lack.
Such is the object of my cunning plan
To quench the thirst of heart-felt desire,
Yet still I must needs bold and simple mortals
To claim sovereign crown from holy fire.
Thus the taunts of Goblin-men
To lead the damsel astray,
To gain her soul to bargain with
So the Puck might yet win the day.
With these last words he settled the crown over his pointed ears, smiling. His smile quickly turned to a grimace of horror, though, as his features began to run like hot wax. "No, no!" he cried, covering his face. And then he was silent.
After a moment, he straightened up - but it was no longer Puck. The Marshal of the Fair, wearing the oak crown, looked down at Meleri approvingly.
Thus the fate of Robin Goodfellow
And all those who lust beyond their state,
Dolorous envy, ambition unbound,
By such transformed into those we hate.
But your fate has not arrived this day,
For we know thy plan in this affair
Was but to save a Father’s child
And to ease a Mother’s care.
Yet, ‘tis best for ye to take our leave
And speedily hie thy noble way.
Remember thy adventure, as well ye should,
And journey no more to the Fair of the Woods.
Meleri didn't need telling twice, and she quickly fled the Fair, failing to notice a raven-haired woman watching her quick departure, a wry smile upon her face. Meleri found her horse waiting near the stream where she'd left it. By the time she emerged from the woods, the sun was high in the sky. She made her way as quickly as she could back to Sarum, arriving as the sun was going down, exhausted but elated.
Father Dewi came running to meet her as she passed into the keep's bailey. "You have been gone a week! We feared you lost forever. The Countess is near death. Tell me you have lifted the curse!"
Meleri nodded and rushed to the Countess's tower. Removing the glass dome from the tableau, she picked up the rose and laid it on Katherine's bosom, which rose and fell only slightly. Her hair was white as snow and her face a mass of lines and wrinkles. But as she breathed the essence of the flower, her hair began to darken, the lines began to decrease. A rosy complexion returned to her cheeks, her lips became full and red again. Her eyes fluttered open and she looked from Meleri to Father Dewi to Lady Gwiona.
"Wh-where? What?" she stammered. Gwiona dissolved into tears of relief and joy as Father Dewi, his own eyes bright with tears, took Katherine's hand and helped her rise.
Over the next half-hour Meleri told and re-told her tale, first to Katherine, then to other courtiers in the great hall. Finally, pleading a very real exhaustion, she retired to her chambers. As she was combing out her hair, looking through the window at the blood red setting sun, she realized she wasn't alone in her room. Whirling round, she saw Queen Morgan le Fay reclining on the bed.
Morgan rose, smiling. "Well done, lady," she said. "There are few who could have completed that quest. Fewer still would have risked a venture to the Other Side in the first place. You seem to be comfortable moving between the two realms, however. I have had my eye on you ever since you served me at court as a young maiden."
Meleri held her tongue, waiting to see where Morgan was going with this.
"I can offer you all you desire," said Morgan, a twinkle in her eye. "Lamorak can at last be yours, wholly and unreservedly."
"How?" Meleri asked, uncertain.
"I shall make you Queen of Norgales," said Morgan. "Pellinore is dead. His land has no ruler. As Queen you will rule over Lamorak and he will serve you. You cannot rely on your beauty alone to keep him; it will not hold forever. Even now I see lines gather like crow's feet about your eyes."
It was true. The stress of the Fair had brought fresh lines to Meleri's face. [Meleri had earlier lost a point of APP after she failed to make a passion-inspired skill roll.] The image of the ravaged noblewoman in the silver mirror, the sight of Countess Katherine prematurely aged, these weighed on Meleri's mind. At the same time, she realized Morgan had not apparently aged a day since Meleri had served at her her side nearly 20 years ago.
Morgan seemed to sense Meleri's thoughts. "You will never be old in the eyes of those who love you. And if they refuse to love you, I can teach you the subtle arts of persuasion that will make them your slaves. Come with me to my hall; you are better than the provincial dolts who people this court. Spend the winter as my guest and think over the offer."
Meleri, despite her tendency to trust Morgan, remained unconvinced that taking this path would bring Lamorak closer to her; on the contrary, she was afraid it would drive him away. Nonetheless, she assented to Morgan's request. They departed with no one at court taking the slightest notice, as if they were mere shades. They rode across the darkening Salisbury Plain until they came to an ancient hill fort, a great artificial mound that rose in ditches and ramparts to a rubble-strewn top. As they rode up the undulating path leading to the top of the fort, however, a great wall and gatehouse began to sketch itself out of thin air. The two women rode beneath the massive portcullis, now a dark shadow against the night sky. Within, a huge keep similarly materialized out of nowhere. Meleri passed inside and as she did so the edifice of Castle Chariot dissolved once again into nothingness...