At the conclusion of this year's adventure, Des told me she's really been enjoying these short squire adventures. By necessity, they can't be very epic or terribly deadly due to Loholt's below-average stats (although they're quickly catching up to normal levels). I agreed; they've been a nice break. I also mentioned that shit's going to get real soon enough, to which she replied, "Oh, I know!" with a wicked gleam in her eye. But we're definitely enjoying this slight change of pace before we get back into proper full-on knight action. And so once again we join Loholt at Uffington Manor. What will another year in the life bring to our plucky young squire?
We actually opened things in the midst of Winter Phase, at Yule Court to be specific. The first members of Arthur's army had begun to return from the Continent bringing joyous news: victory! The Roman army had been smashed, its Emperor put to flight. Even now, Arthur was in Rome itself, adding "Emperor of Rome" to his long list of illustrious titles. Many knights were wintering over in the Eternal City and its surrounds, but many others had hurried home on fast ships, arriving in British ports as the weather began to turn bad. Among these early arrivals were Sir Malcolum of Uffington and Earl Robert of Salisbury. And so a great court had been called at Sarum for Robert and his faithful vassals to talk of their two-year adventure abroad.
Loholt found himself amidst a swirling mass of nobles and ladies. Ale and mead flowed freely and the young squire lost considerable coin in several ill-advised attempts at wagering at the dice. Perhaps he was distracted by the presence of his amor, the Lady Orlande, who was also present. Every evening and most days were given over to tale-telling. The veterans wove wondrous stories of desperate battles against the French and the Romans, of the ruins of Rome, of the far-away lands they saw. The tales filled Loholt and his fellow squires with a powerful lust for travel and adventure.
Malcolum's senior squire, Ieuan, had accompanied the Baron through the war and held a smaller court among the youngsters, telling of his own exploits at his lord's side in the thick of battle. Seeing an opportunity to make a good impression, Loholt then told the story of his adventure at the two White Horses the previous year (conveniently leaving out the end with the sorceress Isadora). He told his tale well and even Ieuan, three years his senior, gave him a grudging nod of approval.
One night, after most of the tales had been told several times already, Earl Robert called for a fresh story. "You there, young man!" The Earl signaled a traveling minstrel who had accompanied the veterans back from Occitania. "Come forth and tell us that story that the women are talking about."
The young man, well-coiffed (nearly beyond his station, in fact), smoothed his mustache and plucked at his harp, producing a delicate sound. He proceded to then weave the story of the Silver Knight and Lady Rose. The Silver Knight, he explained, worshipped the Lady Rose and did great deeds in her name. He fought in wars, battling against a diabolical knight with a shield that breathed fire. Defeating his foe, he took the smoking shield back to the Lady and was only happy that she touched his hand by accident and looked him in the eye.
The tale concluded and the hall seemed to heave a contented sigh as one. Everyone could see themselves someplace in the story. The squires and damsels were particularly taken with the tale and they all exchanged bright-eyed smiles, their cheeks flushed.
As the evening wound down, Loholt accompanied Ieuan and several other squires outside for some fresh air. The night was cold and they pulled their cloaks tightly around their shoulders as the stars shone down like diamonds above. They began to walk the perimeter of the keep, discussing the Silver Knight story. As they rounded the corner of one of the keep's massive square towers, they stopped talking; up ahead a group of young damsels was approaching, apparently out for an evening stroll as well. Loholt immediately discerned the hooded and cloaked form of Orlande at the center of the group. As the young ladies approached, the boys all stepped aside to let them pass.
"Evening," they intoned as one. The damsels halted, giggling and whispering. "Ah, a pack of squires," said Orlande.
"I wonder if any of them think they'll be the next Silver Knight?" asked another of the damsels, laughing.
"Perhaps!" said Ieuan confidently. "But how could one prove one's devotion to his Lady Rose?" he asked, looking hard at Orlande.
Loholt watched Ieuan resentfully, sure that the elder squire had designs on his amor.
"Well..." said Orlande, putting a pensive finger to her delicate chin. "I suppose one could walk the battlements til sunup in view of his Lady's chambers. That way, if she happened to look out her window at some point she would see for herself the knight's ardor and vigor."
The squires all exchanged looks, half nervous, half excited. What a thing to do! The two groups then separated with many curtsies and bows and soon the squires were back in the warm hall. But Loholt didn't remain for long. Excusing himself, he went and quietly slipped into his armor. Taking spear and shield, he then went back outside, back into the frosty night. Making his best guess as to where Orlande was quartered, he began to walk the battlements of the south wall. The knights posted on watch that cold evening, clustered around warm braziers, looked at him as though he were crazy, particularly after an icy wind kicked up and brought with it a snowstorm. Loholt continued to pace, though, wearing a path in the accumulating snowfall. At last the sun rose, dispelling the clouds and revealing a squire with frost clinging to his eyebrows and snow piled on his shoulders. Whether Orlande had witnessed Loholt's energetic feat he could not say, but he had at least made the effort. Somehow he made it through the rest of the day, helping to pack up his lord's goods in preparation for departure back to Uffington the next morning.
Back in the Vale, life soon returned to normal at the manor. Ieuan was once again present at the training sessions under the aegis of Sir Asser and it was obvious that his time abroad and his exposure to battle had hardened him. It was widely agreed around the manor hall that Ieuan would soon be knighted. Outside of training, it was the usual routine of chores, serving the lord's table at supper, and accompanying the Baron and his court as they went on progress around the Vale, hunting, hawking, and checking in on the halls of the vassals.
It was late summer when the Baron's court arrived at the manor furthest from Uffington, a modest hall situated near the junction of the Ock and Thames Rivers near the borders of the Campecorentin Forest. A hunt in the forest was scheduled for the day and Loholt accompanied the Baron's party as they made their way into the trees. A trail was picked up and soon the pursuit was on, the hounds were loosed, and everything became a chaotic mess, as it always did in these situations. Loholt quickly lost sight of the Baron and his knights, but continued riding in the direction of the barking hounds. Then he saw an alarming sight: Ieuan's horse, running terrified and riderless!
He changed course and rode the direction the fleeing horse had come from. Soon he came to a decrepit, tumble-down tower in the middle of the trees. Ivy crawled up its side and its uppermost levels were exposed to the elements, its shingled roof collapsed and lying in ruins at the tower's base. A doorway granted access, its oak door lying off its hinges on the ground. Arming himself, Loholt stepped over the door and entered the tower. It was dark inside, but his eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom. The room appeared bare, only a few ruined pieces of an old table pushed against the wall betraying any sign of previous habitation. The floor was strewn with dead leaves and the air smelled strangely musty. Light streamed down from an opening in the ceiling situated at the head of a stone stairway that followed the curve of the interior wall. Gripping his sword tightly, Loholt climbed the stairs, failing to notice the old trap door in the floor that was beginning to open from within...
Loholt came out to a floor partially exposed to the sky overhead. This room looked like it was more lived-in, but by whom Loholt shuddered to think. The wooden floor, badly warped and crumbling, was strewn with all manner of bones, many of which were unmistakably human. A foul pallet of untanned human hides provided a sort of bed and, hanging from the ceiling's rotting rafters, Loholt could see many strange sculptures that had been created with bone, skin, and sinew. There was also a rickety ladder granting access to the floor above. Anxious to leave this macabre chamber and its nauseating stench, Loholt sheathed his sword, shouldered his shield, and climbed the ladder.
He emerged onto a floor open to the elements. There was little up here but several large casks, disused ale butts by the look of them. Curious, he examined the casks. Each had a loosely-fit lid atop it. Around the casks hung a cloying, coppery smell. Loholt lifted one of the lids and recoiled - it was filled nearly to the top with blood! He was about to turn away when he heard something stirring in one of the other casks. Cautiously, he removed the second lid and was surprised to find it empty of blood but containing none other than Ieuan! He had been knocked hard on the head and was barely conscious.
Before Loholt could do anything, he heard the sound of someone else coming up the ladder. Thinking fast, he positioned himself behind the hole in the floor so that whoever was coming up the ladder would have their back to him. He waited, holding his breath, sword in hand and ready to strike. But his grip faltered as he saw what was coming up the ladder: it looked like a man, but it was taller and lankier than any he had seen before, like a giant cadaver. Loholt could see the thing's long fingers ended in talons like a falcon's; on its head, the creature wore a cap of deepest red. Hardly had the thing cleared the ladder than Loholt struck, his sword lashing out. The blade hit hard, slashing viciously through the filthy rags clothing the creature's torso. So ferocious was the blow, the thing was sent crashing to the floor. But to Loholt's blood-chilling horror, it quickly rolled over and regained its feet, apparently unhurt.
The visage that leered out at Loholt from under the red cap was the stuff of nightmares. Points of hateful flame burned in the creature's sunken eyes as it leered at Loholt, revealing a set of teeth filed to fine points. The creature stepped over the hatch in the floor, its hands extended. Loholt wanted to defend himself, but he was literally paralyzed with fear, his sword-arm numb and useless. He was sure he was about to meet his death...
...and then a spear was thrust up from the hatch below, impaling the creature in the groin! It howled and reeled back, clutching at the spear. Practically running up the ladder, a fully-armored knight emerged, drawing his sword. The battle that followed was ferocious and swift. Barely had Loholt began to recover from his fear and shock than the foul creature was sliding off the knight's blade and onto the rotten floor, the fire extinquished in its sunken eyes. Loholt hurried forward as his savior turned, removing his helmet. The face beneath was youthful and handsome. The knight smiled at Loholt and the squire recognized him: Sir Lancelot!
"Sir! I am in your debt!" said Loholt, bowing and stooping.
"Think nothing of it, lad," said Lancelot. "I was riding through these woods when I came upon this tower and a riderless mount outside - yours, I assume?" Loholt nodded. "I came into the tower and found a trapdoor thrown back with the stench of a charnel pit emanating from below. Then I heard a commotion above and hurried forth."
"What was this thing?" Loholt asked, regarding the dead creature with disgust.
"A redcap," said Lancelot solemnly. "Foul abominations that are spawned at the sites of great tragedies. This was quite an old one by the looks of it. See its cap? It gets the red color from repeated dips in the blood of its victims."
"Why can't it just use beet juice?" Loholt asked, but Lancelot was already examining the casks.
[Yes, Des actually posed that question at the table. Took us a few minutes to stop laughing and move forward with the adventure.]
"Oh!" said Loholt, running over to the cask holding Ieuan, "I nearly forgot!" Lancelot helped Loholt remove the elder squire from the barrel and they were then able to bring him back around. Still groggy and sick from the blow to his head, Ieuan needed help coming down the ladder and out of the tower. Lancelot's steed and his loyal squire, an older gentleman, were waiting outside. With Ieuan barely able to sit a horse, they made slow progress back to the manor hall. There they found Baron Uffington in quite a state of agitation over the disappearance of both his squires. His upset quickly turned to surprise and joy when he found his squires not only returning alive but in the company of none other than Sir Lancelot!
The knight, young as he was, was already a legend in Logres and the Baron's court sat with rapt attention as Lancelot told of his defeat of the redcap. Generous offers were made to give Lancelot a seat of honor at the high table, but he graciously declined, saying he didn't want to impose.
"However, I would like to leave my squire at your disposal. He is quite skilled in the healing arts and your own squire looks sorely wounded. I'll be coming back this way in a month or so and can collect him then."
"I thank you," said Sir Malcolum.
"I would only ask one thing," said Lancelot. "I don't want to be without a squire in my own travels. If it's not too much of an imposition, perhaps your other squire could ride with me?"
Loholt could barely contain the look of excitement on his face. The Baron gave him an appraising look, stroking his jowls thoughtfully.
"Very well," he said at length. "If you give your word that you will return in a month, Loholt may ride with you."
"My word is my bond," said Lancelot with a courteous bow.
And so Loholt was soon back on the road, riding in the wake of the most famous knight in the land. He could scarcely believe this turn of events. He had little time to think, however. Lancelot set a punishing pace, riding hard until well after sunset. After setting camp, he then stayed up most of the night, carefully polishing his armor and sharpening his steel. As he did so, he instructed Loholt in the importance of proper maintenance of equipment. He even touched up parts of his shield that had seen paint chipped off by warded blows. "A true knight is a shining beacon at all times," he intoned.
As Lancelot talked, Loholt watched him. Beneath his facade of chivalric purity, Loholt could sense a deep-seated sadness. But he held his tongue, feeling it would be inappropriate for a mere squire to ask about the inner thoughts of a great knight. Finally, Lancelot retired and Loholt curled up near the fire. He caught a few hours of sleep before he awoke before dawn, disturbed by Lancelot's stirrings.
And so in the days to come Loholt rode on, barely keeping up with Lancelot. After three days of travel, they came upon a bandit encampment. Lancelot defeated them handily, killing their leader and releasing the remainder to the nearby lord, who informed him the gang had been causing much disruption to local trade. A week later, having traveled very deep into the forest, they came upon a strange, ancient tomb. A pool outside the tomb boiled furiously and Loholt rode cautiously around its perimeter. Examining the exterior of the tomb, he could make out a worn inscription in Latin.
"What does it say?" asked Lancelot, who could not decipher the weathered letters.
"It says..." said Loholt squinting hard, "that the tomb's inhabitant, a king of old, was murdered feloniously and that the murder cannot be avenged but by one of the king's lineage."
"Saints' blood!" Lancelot exclaimed. "I shall go within and pay my respects, at the least." He began to move towards the tomb entrance when suddenly a massive lion pounced upon him from the shadows within! Lancelot barely avoided getting pinned by the lion and quickly drew his sword. Loholt stood anxiously by, waiting to give assistance as he could.
The lion tore into Lancelot, shredding his shield and ripping his armor, but Lancelot hacked and hewed, spilling much of the great cat's blood on the forest floor. At last the beast gave way and limped back into the tomb. Lancelot, greatly exhausted, did not pursue immediately. Loholt moved forward to render aid but then stopped short. In the gloom of the tomb's interior he could make out an arresting sight: the walls were running with fresh blood and the wounded lion was licking at it; its wounds were visibly beginning to heal as it did so. Worse, a second lion was crouching inside, ready to pounce.
Loholt told Lancelot what he had seen. With a great groan and effort, Lancelot heaved himself back to his feet. He took a spear from Loholt. "I will engage the second lion. Once I have done so, hurry past and slay the wounded lion before it has a chance to return to full health!"
With that he charged forward. Sure enough, the second lion leapt from the shadows and Lancelot was quickly locked in combat with it. Grabbing a spear, Loholt hurried forward, past the fight and into the tomb. The lion within was busily licking the blood off the walls; Loholt could see its bleeding had stopped and its wounds were miraculously beginning to re-knit. Thinking of his amor Orlande, Loholt charged forward, thrusting the spear so deep into the lion's flank that the shaft broke.
The beast roared and snarled. Spinning around, it lashed out at Loholt, hitting him with a paw the size of the squire's own face. The blow knocked Loholt to the ground and the lion turned back to the wall, resuming its licking. Loholt regained his feet, wincing, drew his sword, and attacked again. Two mighty blows and the lion was dead. Turning, he saw Lancelot finishing off the other. The knight staggered inside, covered in grievous wounds. Thinking fast, Loholt cupped his hands under the blood running down the walls and, getting a handful, brought the blood to Lancelot's lips. The knight drank the blood and his wounds closed just as the lion's had!
"God's wounds!" Lancelot intoned solemnly. "It is as if I hardly fought those beasts! Come, let us gather some more." Lancelot retrieved two empty wine bottles from his bags and filled them both, giving one to Loholt. "I thank you," he said. "That may have been too much for me were you not here to lend your aid." Loholt couldn't help but grin back at Lancelot.
As they left the tomb, Loholt noticed the pond was no longer boiling. Pointing this out, he advanced with Lancelot to the pond's edge. Under the water they could see a knight's helmeted head floating quite calmly. Lancelot reached out and picked the head up. As he lifted it out of the water, the head's eyes flicked open.
"I am King Lanceor," said the head in an ancient voice. "My murder has been avenged."
"But...does that mean I am your descendant?" asked Lancelot.
"Indeed you are, Sir Lancelot," replied Lanceor's head. "Ride forth to greatness."
Lancelot took the head into the mausoleum and reverently placed it into the family tomb. Loholt muttered a prayer for the old king's soul and soon they were on their way again. They were heading south, back towards the Vale. Perhaps Lancelot could sense Loholt's sadness that his time riding with him was soon to come to a close.
"Adventures are cropping up everywhere," said Lancelot that evening over supper. "There is a grave up in Gorre that is howling. There is a castle in Nohaut whose lord sends lions out to raid the countryside. [That bit also cracked us up for a good while - raiding lions!] Somewhere in Rheged there is a warlord who has ambushed caravans on the King’s Road! Far more than I alone can handle, whatever they might think back in Camelot. We'll need plenty more knights with a love of adventure in years to come, methinks." He winked at Loholt, who smiled back.
Loholt did indeed return to Uffington in short order. Lancelot collected his own squire and was again quickly on his way. "He never stays in one place for long," said the Baron that evening. "They say Arthur wanted to offer him a place on the Round Table earlier this year, but Lancelot ran off before anything could be arranged. Hmpf!"
"I've heard the knights of Gales are off on errant adventures as well," said Ieuan. "They say Lamorak hit the road as soon as his feet touched British soil again. Maybe he's trying to outdo Lancelot?"
"Perhaps," said the Baron uninterestedly. "Speaking of great knights, I've heard tell that Arthur is planning a grand tournament in London next year. Be it known that I intend to enter, and I expect you both to do so as well."
"But..." said Ieuan.
"We're not..." said Loholt.
The two squires then exchanged incredulous smiles. "Does this mean...?" asked Loholt, not daring to complete the question.
"I intend to nominate you both at Arthur's court," said Malcolum. "And I don't anticipate he'll say no to either of you." He beamed at them both and they all raised a goblet in a toast of celebration.