Sunday, March 18, 2012

[Solo GPC] 529: Coming to a Head

Oh dear, another intolerably long gap between updates. Blame my starting up a regular tabletop campaign for my group; that sort of thing does tend to eat up one's spare time...

When we last left off, plans were afoot for Loholt, after several notable adventures around the environs of the Vale of the White Horse, to finally receive his knighthood. Sir Malcolum, Baron of the Vale and recently returned from the Roman War, had decided to take Loholt and Ieuan (Malcolum's other squire) to London to have them knighted by the High King himself at the Pentecostal Tournament.

Normally, Arthur had held this royal tournament, the first of the season, at Camelot, but this year procedings had been moved to the ancient Roman capital. Word had it that Arthur was planning some big event to kick off the tournament that required everyone to be present at London. Loholt and Ieuan dutifully saw to their squire duties, all the while trying in vain to restrain their bubbling excitement - soon they would be knights!

Loholt had passed the winter in anxious contemplation of his promised knighthood. The only relief had come when he had been able to see his beloved, the Lady Orlande, at Earl Robert's Yuletide court at Sarum. The court was abuzz with more tales of the Silver Knight and his Lady Rose, tales Loholt, Orlande, and their compatriots devoured avidly. Such drama! Such passion! Orlande made it known that she wanted to hear tales of derring-do from amongst the squires at court and Loholt admirably told the story of his desperate fight against a pair of lions guarding the Tomb of Lanceor (only mentioning in passing that Lancelot was there to help out...). The story, told down in the scullery after the older knights and ladies had retired, gained an enthusiastic round of applause from the squires, damsels, pages, and maids present.

As usual, the Yule court was a great source of gossip: Sir Aglovale, the youngest of the de Ganis knights, had been made a Round Table knight; Lancelot's adventures of the previous year (of which Loholt's contributions had been but a tiny part) included driving a flock of bronze swans out of Essex, slaying a giant white bear in Garloth, rescuing the Countess of Hereford, and finally defeating the Dwarf Knight; the Queen, herself a great fan of the Silver Knight and Lady Rose tales, was said to be in the process of drafting Rules of Love so everyone would know the rules of courtly love and courtship.

His head abuzz with many thoughts and feelings, Loholt made the chilly journey back to Uffington with his lord. In due time, spring came and then, before he knew it, Pentecost was approaching and it was time to be off!

The trip from Uffington to London passed uneventfully. The Royal Road was, predictably, clogged with traffic of all sorts and Loholt rode among a swirling sea of farmers, merchants, entertainers, bawds, wenches, fellow squires, and knights, all making their way as one towards the ancient, moss-streaked Roman walls of Londontown. Baron Uffington had arranged lodgings ahead of time and he and his squires were put up in a rented room above an alehouse not far from the White Keep, where Arthur and his Round Table knights were in residence.

Loholt burned to tour the city and take in its sights, but he stuck close to Uffington, who largely remained confined to his quarters. "The streets of this city are no place for a young man," he enjoined. Loholt and Ieuan could not wait until they could be free to come and go as they pleased. Still, Loholt had plenty to think about. After Uffington's first visit to court, it became apparent that Queen Guenevere had completed her draft of the rules of romance. They read as follows:
1. Thou shalt avoid avarice like the deadly pestilence and shalt embrace its opposite.
2. Thou shalt keep thyself chaste for the sake of her whom thou lovest.
3. Thou shalt not knowingly strive to break up a correct love affair that someone else is engaged in.
4. Thou shalt not choose for thy love anyone whom a natural sense of shame forbids thee to marry.
5. Be mindful completely to avoid falsehood.
6. Thou shalt not have many who know of thy love affair.
7. Being obedient in all things to the commands of ladies, thou shalt ever strive to ally thyself to the service of Love.
8. In giving and receiving love's solaces let modesty be ever present.
9. Thou shalt speak no evil.
10. Thou shalt not be a revealer of love affairs.
11. Thou shalt be in all things polite and courteous.
12. In practicing the solaces of love thou shalt not exceed the desires of thy lover.
As the first day of the tournament at last drew near, even more momentous news began to circulate: the great event Arthur had planned had been revealed!

"He plans to dig up the Head of Bran," said Uffington when his squires inquired as to why their master looked so disturbed after their last visit to court.

"What is that?" Ieuan asked.

Art by Alan Lee
"I'll tell you!" The voice was that of Sir Asser, the Knight of the Old Ways, and he was even more visibly upset than his lord, the Baron. "Bran was a god of ancient Britain and lord of the Underworld. His divine life was full of marvels and ended in an unusual manner. He was mortally wounded in his last fight. Rather than see his friends give in to despair, he gave them strange instructions. Following Bran's orders, his friends decapitated the dying god and set his head at the High Table. There the head sat for seven years, entertaining the guests of the hall on a nightly basis. Finally, Bran's friends took the head and buried it outside London's walls. It has been foretold that no invaders could harm Britain so long as the head remained buried."

"So why does he mean to dig it up?" asked Loholt, somewhat alarmed - Bran was an old pagan god, to be sure, but what if the legend was true?

"The Pendragon will explain all at a speech before the disinterment tomorrow, or so Sir Kay assures me," said Uffington with a heavy sigh.

The next day was the first day of the royal tournament and everyone assembled in a field east of London's Postern Gate. The Pen Bran this field was called, and it had been ringed by great grandstands. The royal stands, large enough for Arthur's entourage and all the Round Table knights and their ladies, had been erected against the city walls themselves. To the north stood a stand containing all the assembled clergy of Britain. In the field itself, a great pit had already been dug, dug so deep that Loholt could not see the bottom from where he stood. He was positioned at the foot of a third set of stands, these erected on the south end of the field, their back to the river. His lord and many other knights and nobles of the land were clustered in these stands. To his right, on the east side of the field, hundreds of curious commoners milled about.

A fanfare of trumpets heralded the official beginning of the ceremony, but the digging continued along steadily. Cartloads of soil were being brought up out of the pit and a giant derrick-like winch and tackle were being erected over the pit. As this went on, bishops offered benedictions and minor lords offered speeches. Loholt tuned it all out, focusing his attention on the great pit. He was hardly alone.

Suddenly, the assembly of clerics in the northern stands began a loud chant. It was one Loholt had never heard before. As the priests droned on in Latin, the clouds overhead began to darken ominously. A chill breeze out of the west blew across the field, whipping away hats and causing startled screams. More screams of alarm were heard as a massive draconic shadow passed over the field, flying west. Eyes searched the black clouds overhead, but no dragon was seen. Was it all an illusion?

Loholt's attention was drawn to the royal grandstand. There, the Lady of the Lake was standing before the king. She had been among the seated dignitaries in the box, but now she was looming over him, her arms thrown wide. She spoke and her voice rang across the field, harsh and ringing.

"Two Fatal Disclosures there were on the Isle before," she intoned. "The first was when Vortigern uncovered the bones of Vortimer for the love of a woman; the second was when Vortigern uncovered the dragons which Llud the son of Beli had concealed. Now this is the third: the disclosure of Bran's Head from the White Hill!"

"Witch! Burn in hell!" The call had come from the clergy's stand. Arthur lept to his feet as the Lady of the Lake sank back into her chair, covering her face. Movement in the clergy's stands indicated the shouting priest had been escorted away.

"Thank you for your words, lady," Arthur said. As he spoke, hailstones began to pelt the field, localized directly over the pit. With a great shout, the workers within lept out and ran away, terror on their faces. Sir Bedivere, who had been supervising the digging, stepped to the edge and looked in. Turning, he shouted, "We need aid to fasten ropes around the head!"

With only the slightest moment of hesitation, Loholot ran forward, several other squires doing the same. They jumped down into the pit. Within, Loholt found the head of a massive giant. The great thing was the size of a peasant's cottage, it seemed, and perfectly preserved, if a bit dirty and moldy. It was still caked with blood from the beheading. There was a strong, sickly-sweet earthy smell in the pit that turned Loholt's stomach, but he set about securing the ropes around the head.

As he did so, he felt more than heard a great rumbling voice intone, "LEAVE ME." Loholt's courage failed him and he scrambled up out of the pit along with about half the squires who had descended with him. The rest finished securing the ropes and the winch went into action. With a great creaking, the head was raised until it was dangling above the pit. Loholt took a few steps back. Suddenly, the head's eyes began to open slowly in the manner of someone coming out of a long sleep. Again, a deep voice that was felt in the chest cavity more than heard with the ears reverberated across the field.


Suddenly, Loholt's ears popped. A bright light had seemed to emenate from Arthur and spread across the field. "The land must be held by courage and strength, not old magics. This is a New Age, an Age of Men," the High King said, his voice ringing clear like a clarion call.

Looking back at the head, Loholt could now see it for what it was: an old rotting piece of dead flesh, nothing more. The assembled crowd, who had been standing spellbound, blinked and looked around in astonishment and embarassment. The skies overhead began to clear as the rotting head was dragged off to a pyre to be burned to ashes. A warm breeze blew up from the south and Loholt suddenly realized how cold he had been.

Arthur raised his hands, preparing to formally kick off the tournament. "It is time, I think, to - oh, excuse me." Gawaine was urgently imposing himself, whispering in the Pendragon's ear. Arthur's eyebrows rose in alarm. Even as Gawaine was talking, however, two riders appeared and hurriedly mounted the royal stands. Loholt recognized the old warhorse Sir Brastias and the young knight Sir Dodinas le Sauvage. Both were covered in the dust of the road, their horses lathered from hard riding. They too joined the conference. After several minutes of talk, during which the vast assembly watched in nervous silence, Arthur turned back to make an announcement.

"My lords and ladies, we have received terrible news in triple. The Saxons of Anglia have risen in rebellion. And now comes word of Irish raiders sacking and pillaging along the coasts of both the Severn and Demetian Seas.

"In light of these difficulties, the tournament is hereby cancelled. All knights and retainers are to report to fulfill their fuedal duties on the morrow. Councillors, report to my chambers."

With that, the assembly broke apart in total chaos. Loholt rejoined Sir Malcolum and Sir Asser as they hurried back to town and their rented quarters. None spoke though all wondered the same thing: could these ill tidings be the result of Bran's disclosure? And in the back of his mind, Loholt registered the harsh truth that he would not be knighted this day or likely anytime soon.

With most of the knights of Britain assembled for the tournament, Arthur was able to raise an army quickly and be on the march the day after the scene at Pen Bran. His war council had decided the most immediate threat was presented by the Irish raiders in Surluse. They were under the command of Duke Galeholt of the Long Isles and were reportedly causing great havoc in the northern lands. Duke Hervis of Anglia would just have to do his best to put down his Saxon subjects on his own and the unfortunate people of Cambria were not Arthur's subjects and so would likewise have to find a way to defend their own lands.

And so Loholt found himself riding in the train of a massive royal army as it snaked its way north. He had never seen such a grand asssemblage of military might in his life, and he had every confidence that Duke Galeholt would crumble before Arthur's banners. Then word reached the army of the King of Malahaut, the so-called King of One Hundred Knights, rising in rebellion and marching off to aid Galeholt. Treachery! The walls of Eburacum were put under siege, but Arthur did not tarry long. Leaving enough men to continue the siege, he marched on for Surluse, crossing the Pennines on Midsummer's Day.

The rocky coast of Surluse was the site of a massive, old-fashioned motte and bailey castle. Within, the armies of Malahaut and Galeholt sheltered. More ships from Ireland came and went, disgorging reinforcements even after Arthur's army laid siege, for the army could not control traffic on the sea. The depredations of Galeholt's raids on the surrounding countryside were quite obvious and Loholt looked forward to bearding the dragon in its lair. Perhaps he could even win glory in the forthcoming battle? Then his knighthood would be assured!

But days turned to weeks and the siege dragged on. Then, one blustery day, the gates of Galeholt's castle opened and, much to the surprise of Arthur's men, the enemy army marched out and arrayed itself for battle. As the junior squire, Loholt was told to remain with the rear and offer aid should Uffington suffer injury. "So much for glory in battle," Loholt thought. He watched as the combined armies of Galeholt and Malahaut formed up. It was clear that there was a great numerical disparity; Loholt could see the enemy lines stretching out beyong both flanks of Arthur's army. For the first time, he began to wonder about his side's odds for victory.

Trumpet blasts signaled the first charge. Loholt watched as the vanguard of knights charged forward, their horses churning up the soft ground. The crash of steel and flesh was tremendous, even from a couple hundred yards back. Soon the screams of the injured and dying were added to the ringing of metal on metal. Loholt watched the battle anxiously, his eyes wide, his mouth dry. It might have just been his imagination, but it seemed that after an hour of fighting Arthur's forces were being pressed back.

Suddenly, a gap opened up! Enemy forces poured through and fanned out, riding for Arthur's camp. Loholt, mounted atop his trusty charger White Star, readied his shield and sword. A knight of Malahaut caught sight of him and charged, his own sword held out in challenge. With a bellow, Loholt put spurs to his steed and charged as well.

There was a flash of metal and Loholt felt hot blood splatter his face. His sword arm went numb, then he felt himself falling....

...He awoke with sunlight in his eyes and the smell of woodsmoke in his nostrils. He could tell his right arm was bound tightly. Experimentally, he wiggled his fingers. Pain shot up his arm, but all his fingers still worked, thankfully. Then he looked around. He was lying on animal skins and straw in the corner of a large wooden hall. Milky light was pouring in through high windows as a fire burned in a central hearth. All around, knights and men-at-arms moved to and fro, all looking dirty and careworn. Several lords, however, stood near the fire, deep in council. Loholt recognized the coat of arms of the King of Malahaut on one of the men's surcoats. He had been captured! He closed his eyes again and gave a soft moan of despair.

"Do not fret, young squire. Your arm will heal in due time." It was a familiar voice. Opening his eyes again, Loholt saw one of the knights from the fireside council had come over - and it was none other than Lancelot! Loholt had not recognized him at first with his back turned.

"Sir...what are you doing here? Were you captured as well?"

Lancelot laughed. "No, I came in of my own accord. Or rather I chased the Duke and his army back to their gate and, well, it just seemed natural to carry on through."

"It's true," said another of the fireside councillors. He was a middle-aged man of ruddy complexion, his small eyes twinkling under a massive brow. "We nearly had Arthur's army on the run, and then Golden Boy here came out of nowhere and pretty much routed half my own army single-handed."

Lancelot grinned somewhat sheepishly. "Duke Galeholt has proven himself a most gracious host. But he will not listen to reason, I'm afraid."

Galeholt laughed ruefully. "Reason? It is reason that tells me that if I surrender to Arthur, as you would have me do, I can expect an appointment with the headsman's chopping block - if I'm lucky. The king here," he indicated the King of Malahaut, who was still standing by the fire, contemplating the flames with a sour expression, "can expect even less tender mercies."

"And I've been trying to explain to Galeholt that our High King subscribes to a different set of ideals..."

"Ah yes, this so-called 'chivalry,'" Galeholt scoffed, sketching quotes around the word.

"It's true!" Loholt said, sitting up quickly and wincing as a hot bolt of pain shot through his arm. Briefly he registered his weakened condition; he'd clearly lost weight and muscle mass. How long had he been lying comatose? A week? Two? Ignoring this, he continued: "King Arthur is the most just ruler in the world. His ways are not those of the uncouth barbarian. He is a champion of chivalry and a great respector of martial prowess, which you have demonstrated in spades, sir. I am sure he would listen to parley from you, sir."

Galeholt stared at Loholt for several seconds, then smiled a crooked smile. "Perhaps Lancelot told the truth," he said, still smiling. "Very well, young squire. I want you to take a message to this great king of yours."

And so, after he had been fed and clothed, Loholt was sent forth from Galeholt's castle. He saw that Arthur had renewed the siege after the battle; a great no man's land stretched out before him. From behind stockades and pallisades, he could feel the eyes of Arthur's men upon him. But he bore a white flag of truce in his good hand and was allowed to pass. He guided his horse with his knees towards the massive pavillion that flew the triple crown standard of the Pendragon.

"I have an offer from Duke Galeholt," he announced as he dismounted with some difficulty. "As a sign of his sincerity, the Duke wishes it known that he has released me from my ransom obligations."

Loholt was ushered inside the tent. There he found Arthur in council with his advisors. Kay, Bedivere, Brastias, Gawaine, and a host of other Round Table luminaries looked up at him expectantly. His voice steady, Loholt announced Galeholt's terms: "Duke Galeholt would like to make peace with King Arthur without surrendering, to swear a treaty of mutual support and friendship. Further, he is willing to swear fealty to King Arthur not because of any military reason, but because he has been so impressed by the virtue shown by the King's subjects." At this, Loholt could feel his face flushing, but he finished, "He figures that any king who promotes such knights must be worthy of serving."

There was absolute silence for what felt like an eternity. Then Arthur spoke. "I accept," he said simply.

An hour later, Duke Galeholt's men had marched out of the castle and the Duke himself had met with Arthur, catching him in a fulsome embrace and laughing uproariously. The King of Malahaut stood by, uncertain, but Arthur merely passed him by as he approached Loholt, who was standing near Lancelot.

"The meaning of the Duke's words were not lost on me, young squire," he said. "You must have said some kind things about me to change his mind like that."

"I only spoke the truth, my liege," said Loholt, bowing.

"Where is your sword, squire?" Arthur asked.

"I know not," said Loholt, his heart racing. "It was taken from me when I was captured." A few minutes later, Loholt's sword was produced.

"Kneel, squire," said Arthur. "What is your name?"

"Loholt, sire."

A voice rang out from the crowd assembled around the king and squire: "That is Loholt! They say he is the king's bastard son!" Arthur blinked, surprised. Loholt looked up into eyes that were just like his own.

"Is this true?" Arthur asked, though he seemed to already know the answer.

"My mother is Lady Meleri - well, Queen Meleri, now. She met you in..."

"...Carlion," finished Arthur, his gaze going back through many years. "Aye." He cleared his throat, then raised Loholt's sword. "Very well. Do you acknowledge - "


The cry was raised from somewhere else in the crowd. All heads whipped round to see a young man, no older than Loholt, riding up on a white stallion. He wore the latest court fashions cut from expensive fabrics, and his long oiled hair whipped dramatically in the sea breeze. He brought his horse to a skidding halt, jumped down from the saddle, and strode forward.

"I have come to claim my birthright, father!" the young man said dramatically, kneeling before Arthur and (accidentally?) knocking Loholt aside.

"Who...who are you?" asked Arthur, completely stunned.

"I am Borre le Cure Hardy," said the youth, springing back to his feet and executing a sweeping bow. "My mother is the Lady Lyanors, daughter of..."

"...the Earl of Bedgraine," said Arthur, pinching the bridge of his nose. "The same year as..." He looked at Loholt, who looked back in surprise between Arthur and Borre.

Borre looked a bit disconcerted for a moment, but quickly hitched back his confident swagger. "My mother has told me of my birthright, father, and I have come to claim it," he repeated doggedly.

"Very well," said Arthur again. "Kneel before me, Borre, at your brother's side."

Arthur took Borre's sword, but turned to Loholt first.

"Loholt, do you acknowledge me as your true and rightful liege?"

"I do," said Loholt, feeling completely overwhelmed by everything that was happening.

"Do you pledge fealty to me, and swear your sword to me, to be forever at my service?"

"I do."

"Then I dub thee Sir Loholt and return this, my sword, to you to be wielded in my name." Loholt took his sword back from Arthur. "Arise, Sir Knight," said the Pendragon. On wobbly knees, Loholt got to his feet. He watched as Arthur performed the same ceremony for Borre, the cold, strong sea breeze sending every pennant and banner flapping wildly. When it was done, Sir Borre stood and turned to face Sir Loholt.

"So," he said. "You're my brother, eh?"
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