Saturday, February 4, 2012

[Solo GPC] 527: White Horse Vales

Here's an adventure I've been looking forward to running not just since the inception of the GPC but basically since I first bought the Pendragon 4th Edition rulebook. Included in that tome (oddly in two versions, one short and one long) is a scenario called the "Adventure of the White Horse". Ever since it became evident that we'd most likely be starting with Loholt as a squire or very young knight, I've been planning on running this adventure for him. Truth be told, it's the whole reason I had him squired at Uffington (the fact it made narrative sense for him to be sent to study under the father of Countess Katherine was only icing on the cake).

So after all those years of anticipation, how did it measure up? Read on...

After his adventure with the bear and the bandits the previous year, life had largely returned to normal for Loholt. But now his daily tasks and lessons were always diminished in importance by a single vision, that of the lovely Orlande residing at Devizes Castle two days' ride to the south. She might as well have been living in Jerusalem, for Loholt was not free to move around of his own free will. Yet thoughts of her sustained him through boring kitchen duties and rigorous training and the winter months quickly came and went.

As the days warmed up, more reliable news began to filter back from the Continent, borne by veterans who had marched under Arthur's banner and received wounds sufficient to send them home. A one-armed knight, traveling to Marlborough, brought news to Uffington Hall of battlefield triumphs: the armies of Arthur had captured Paris! Other travelers later in the year would tell of further triumphs against Roman forces marching up into Gaul to oppose Arthur's will. The triumphs of the High King, it was said, had brought knights and brave warriors from far-flung lands to fight under his banner: Saxons, Danes, Angevins, Gauls, Lombards from Aquitaine, Spaniards, and even a Russian or two.

Loholt's imagination reeled at these reports and he longed to be off with the army, winning glory and spreading Arthur's tenets of chivalry and justice to foreign kingdoms. In June, however, he was offered a unique opportunity by Sir Asser, Knight of the Old Way. As Loholt was bringing water to the hall for the evening supper, Asser stopped him. "Meet me with your best horse in the courtyard at Vespers. Dress for speed."

Curious, Loholt brought White Star out from the stables after supper and prepared him for a ride. Perhaps the old knight wanted to engage in one of his favorite pastimes, horse racing? As promised, Asser was waiting for Loholt near the front gate of the manor as the sun began to sink towards the horizon.

"I have it on good authority that tonight is the centennial of the foaling of Epona, the horse goddess venerated by many of the peasant-folk around these lands. There's supposed to be a ceremony up at the White Horse, and everyone present is due a great gift. Would you like to ride with me?"

Loholt nodded eagerly, grinning. The knight and squire mounted up and slowly rode along the village road, making for the downs. As they rode, a question occurred to Loholt.

"Are you a pagan too, Sir Asser?"

The Knight of the Old Way was silent for a long time, so long that it seemed to Loholt that he might have offended the knight. Finally Asser spoke.

"I just want to live at peace with all the spirits, and so I did what the priests said their heroes did, and went wandering without food in the wilderness and did nothing but ask Christ to help me get through. Later I did what the old witch lady did and went wandering in the rich forests for as long, asking only that the Lady and her servants help me. I was not normally a pious person, but those things can change a man. Well, I got the same answers from both about Love and Life and The Knight’s Duty. So now, naturally, I am a Grail Christian by practice. It lets me get everywhere: Beltaine feasts, Christmas at Court, Midsummer, wherever is convenient. But in truth, I do not think the Holy Grail is real, except as some sort of symbol to inspire idealism in young knights."

They rode on in silence until they reached the summit of the downs. The White Horse stretched out before them, terminating in a small hillock known as Dragon Hill; a bald patch of chalk upon the hillock's summit was said to be the site where St. George had slain his dragon. The beast's blood spilled there had ensured no grass would ever grow there again.

Art by Kezia Noel Paton
Loholt's attention was drawn, however, to a lone figure kneeling closer by. He was dressed in the robes of a priest, his hair tonsured. Before him, stuck in the ground, stood a simple hobby horse. The priest was lost in prayer, hands clasped and lips moving soundlessly. Assuming this was part of the ritual, Loholt slid from his saddle, genuflected, and kneeled at the priest's side, joining him in prayer. Sir Asser dismounted as well, but simply fetched a half-loaf of bread from his saddle bag and proceeded to eat.

As Loholt prayed at the priest's side, the sun began to set in the west. On the eastern horizon, a huge and brilliant full moon began to simultaneously rise. As the giant moon rose into the darkening sky, the priest's prayers became audible, then increasingly louder. Loholt could not make out the muttered Latin incantations, but the priest was becoming visibly agitated. Finally, he leapt to his feet, grabbing the hobby horse and holding his arms out wide, asking in plain talk, "O Lord, send a miracle and convert the heathens who would worship false idols such as this!" Loholt looked up, his hands still clasped. Sir Asser watched, bemused. Several moments of silence passed. The priest dropped his outstretched arms and began walking down the hill.

"Hey! Wait just a moment!" yelled Loholt, getting to his feet. "What was all that about?"

"Hm? Oh. Well, I heard there was going to be a great pagan ritual held here tonight so I came to convert the unbelievers and show them their 'magic' comes from the lord, not some petty demon goddess. I'm surprised to see you men here - I thought the Lady Isadora was going to be in attendance." The priest looked quite relieved that she wasn't. He began to walk down the hill again. "Maybe it was at the other White Horse..."

"The other...?" Asser slapped his forehead in disbelief. "Of course! I just assumed!"

"What other horse?" Loholt asked excitedly.

"In Westbury," Asser said.

"Beyond the Campecorentin Forest?" Loholt asked. "That's a ways away."

"Indeed," Asser agreed sadly.

"We'll have to ride hard to make it before moonset," said Loholt earnestly. Asser stared at the squire for a moment, then guffawed in amusement.

"You think so, do you?" he said, still chuckling. "Very well, lad. If you think we can make the ride - twelve leagues as the crow flies, mind you - then let's not dawdle any longer!" With that, Asser and Loholt leapt into their saddles and were off, riding hard through the silvery moonlight, horse hooves thundering. They passed through the flat farmland of the Vale, wind whipping through their hair. After a couple hours of riding, they were nearing the forest when they spotted signs of a celebration up ahead. A large bonfire had been lit and trestle tables laid out, each groaning under heaps of simple and fresh peasant fare. Dozens of men and women laughed, ate, and frolicked, and as Loholt slowed his horse to a trot they waved merrily at him and invited him to join in. Beyond the firelight, the squire could make out peasants dancing in increasingly sparse clothing, including several young maidens wearing naught but their long, unbraided hair.

His Arm Ring of Chastity biting into his biceps, Loholt turned away from this carnal temptation and flicked White Star's reigns, urging him to catch up with Sir Asser, who likewise had not fallen victim to temptation. In due course, the duo entered the Campecorentin Forest. Dark trees whipped around them as they galloped along the forest trail. So intent was Loholt on his ride that he even failed to notice a magnificent Red Stag, silver bells hung from its massive antlers, as it stood on a moonlit rise not far from the road, watching as he passed.

"Good ev'n, good sirs!" The cry came from a mounted knight, raising his lance in salute. He was blocking the trail, his great helm gleaming in the moonlight. Sir Asser and Loholt reigned their horses in.

"Pardon us, sir, but we are in haste," said Asser courteously.

"No doubt, for you ride hard despite the late hour. However, I have been given a task by the Adventurous Maiden, whose requests are followed by all chivalrous knights." The knight was clearly not a local; he spoke with a thick Somerset accent. "None may pass this night who do not engage me in a joust 'for love.'"

With a heavy sigh, Asser submitted to the knight's request. A shield, helm, and jousting lance were provided, and the Knight of the Old Way duly jousted down his opponent. Making ready to leave, Asser was checked. "Ho there, good sir! Your squire must make a pass for love as well." If Asser was surprised at this, Loholt was shocked. To joust a knight? He had never had the honor! Soon Loholt was suiting up, nervously going over in his head the proper way to joust. The back of his head tingled with the memory of the innumerable hits he had received from the quintain, the wooden opponent he had never managed to beat. If he couldn't best a wooden machine, how could he hope to overcome a fully-armored knight?

Before he knew it, Loholt was atop White Star, a heavy lance in his hand. His opponent saluted him from 30 yards away and then he was off! As Loholt's own horse also galloped down the trail, the squire could feel every bone and joint in his body jostling, the shield banging against his arm. He lowered the lance, trying desperately to line it up as it too bounced and jostled. Then with a tremendous crash he connected - and his opponent's lance hit him with a force greater than he could have imagined. All thoughts of knocking the other knight off his horse were shattered; everything focused on staying in the saddle. Somehow he managed it. Bringing White Star around, he looked back - the other knight was picking himself up off the ground! He had done it. Not only had he survived his first joust, he had won!

Loholt slid from his saddle, his knees weak with relief. Asser was next to him, slapping him on the back and laughing. The Somerset knight, having picked himself up, was also congratulating Loholt, shaking his hand and smiling.

"Your horses look exhausted and if you don't mind my saying so, so do you two," he said to Loholt and Asser. "Please, take a moment of rest at my tent. I have food and drink."

They dined under the silk tent and Loholt's belly quickly filled with bread, cheese, salted beef, and wine. His eyelids began to grow heavy as the long day caught up with him...

"Wake up lad!" It was Sir Asser and he was shaking Loholt violently. "Come, we must ride! The moon is nearly set!"

"Hm? Wah?" Loholt tried to move but it felt as if his limbs were cast of lead.

"Move, damn it!" said Asser. "Rise or I'll leave you here!"

Slowly Loholt stumbled from the knight's tent, somnambulating into White Star's saddle. His head still lolling slightly, he rode off down the darkening trail, Sir Asser ahead of him. The two knights and their tired mounts straggled along the trail as the moon began to brush the horizon. Ahead through the trees Loholt could blearily make out the light of campfires burning. The trail curved and they saw a wide vale stretching away from them. On the far side was a magnificent chalk horse carved into the side of a hill. In the vale, a herd of ponies and horses was gathered as a band of commoners danced in a circle, the sound of flutes wafting through the still night air.

Loholt and Asser rode into this scene and were greeted by a woman with long, unbound hair and flowing robes. As the moon began to set, she swept her hand towards the horses. Loholt could feel White Star's flagging steps grow steady, sense the horse becoming reinvigorated. The steed even began to neigh with excitement as the lady loudly proclaimed, "The time has come friends! Mount up and ride into the arms of the moon!"



As the people around him hopped on the bare backs of their horses, Loholt flicked the reins and spurred White Star forward. He rode up the hill towards the chalk horse, then over it, then out onto a great open plain. The sun began to rise as the moon set and the grass of the plain shone like a cut emerald. Others rode all around Loholt; up ahead, he could see the lady atop her own white mare. Some horses began to crash to the ground, throwing their riders, but White Star galloped on, bearing Loholt towards a golden hill. Up the hill Loholt rode, finding a large wooden tub filled to the brim at the summit. Several horses were already drinking deeply of the water and Loholt quickly slid from his saddle, took White Star's bridle off, and let him drink as well.

At this point, he also noticed a large chest, its lid flung wide, spilling over with silver coins. Many of the riders were helping themselves to the treasure, and Loholt took a handful of coins for himself as well. They were ancient coins, each bearing an image of Epona. [In game terms, Loholt picked up 9 Libra and White Star gained a +3 to his CON score.]


In time, a mist began to rise from the ground. Soon it was so thick, Loholt couldn't see anyone else. Then it began to clear and he found himself back in the Campecorentin Forest, alone save for White Star who was contentedly munching grass nearby. He also spotted a white silk tent off among the elm trees. Cautiously, he went towards it.

He found the lady's white mare outside the tent. He proceeded inside and was immediately engulfed in thick clouds of incense. A voice called out to him from beyond a diaphanous partition of silken scarves. "Come forward, young Loholt."

Parting the scarves, Loholt found Lady Isadora stretched out on a luxurious bed of animal skins. Her own robes were sliding off her alabaster shoulders most seductively. Loholt could barely contain the fire growing inside him, but he forced himself to focus on what the lady was saying.

"You are destined for the same fate shared by all Pendragons, Loholt," she said. "A great fate, but a terrible one as well. Follow your heart and you shall never go wrong. Stray from that path and you shall bring tragedy to your house."

With that, she let her robes slip away entirely and Loholt stepped forward, his mind very much succumbing to his heart's desire...

[So in conclusion, did this adventure live up to my expectations? Absolutely! It's Pendragon at its best, a fine mix of reality and fantasy, the dice-rolling mechanics driving some great dramatic moments. Interestingly, White Star made all three of his CON rolls, proving himself to be an able mount - all the more so now that his CON is boosted by 3 points! Loholt became a man and received some dire warnings as well. I've given some thought on how to handle Loholt's canonical fate, which I'll discuss if and when we get to that point in the chronology (still many years away, of course) - in the meantime, if Loholt cacks it, then he'll simply be fulfilling his destiny a little early. For now, it's all about living for the moment. I really like the way Des is approaching playing Loholt, giving him an adolescent impetuousness and naïveté quite in contrast to Meleri's cold calculation or Herringdale's world weariness.]
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