Yes, kids, it's time again. Time to delve back into the tale of the Broughton clan, in particular of Sir Loholt of Camelot, son of the High King and Romantic Knight par excellance. What strange and glorious adventures lie in wait for our intrepid young knight this year? Read on and find out...
Sir Loholt, after his defeat of the villainous Sir Neilyn the year before, now found himself in possession of a proper suit of armor and a fine charger. He was, however, still a rootless knight. His manor in Ireland provided for his means of upkeep, but he did not have anywhere he felt like calling home. Arthur's shining city of Camelot seemed to offer the next best thing, however, and so that is where Loholt spent the winter, mixing with the courtiers at the Caratacus Keep and walking the city's gleaming boulevards, taking in the local sights and sounds.
The city was growing by leaps and bounds. Although St. Stephen's cathedral was still only half-finished and Arthur's own residence at the Keep of Gold was not yet ready to move into, many more houses and buildings had sprung up inside the gleaming white walls of the capital. Unlike London, Camelot was not subject to tidal reeks, its main streets were kept free of trash and refuse, and crime was virtually non-existent. (The presence at any given time of approximately half the members of the Round Table and innumerable other Companions of Arthur likely helped greatly in this last regard.)
And the King and Queen called Camelot their home for over half the year, including all of winter. It was during this particular winter that Loholt at last became well-acquainted with his second cousin, Guenevere. Like nearly every other knight who laid eyes on her, a part of his heart was stolen forever by her unearthly beauty and grace.
There was also much chatter around court of the death of the Saxon witch Camille. It was her sorcery that had visited the Wild Hunt upon Logres, and last year (while Loholt was away in the North, helping the Helmed Knight claim his true love) she had made a further move against her sworn enemy, King Arthur: She had done nothing less than kidnap the High King himself! Many brave and glorious knights, including Galegantis, Ector, and even Lancelot, riding to rescue the King were also captured. In the end, it fell to the unlikely shoulders of Sir Kay to rescue the lot of them. For good measure, Kay burned Camille's books of sorcery and demonology even as the witch hurled herself from the top of her tower deep within the fens of Anglia.
Loholt reveled in these tales of adventure and felt his heart swell with a mad desire to ride forth and pursue that flighty mistress as well. The atmosphere around Camelot certainly encouraged this attitude - knights from all over the Isles and beyond mixed and mingled, sharing stories and boasting of past deeds both real and imagined. The scholars of the city's growing Jewish Quarter and the Benedictine monasteries within the walls copied and preserved still-older tales of heroism from the days of Achilles and Alexander, as well as bestiaries cataloging the fabulous beasts of the world. But the impending visit of the King of Overthere, as he was called, and his court promised wonders undreamed-of.
"These are polite but proud warriors," said Sir Griflet of the visiting knights several months before their arrival. "Do not issue challenges unless Arthur gives the go-ahead. Look to the king for guidance."
And indeed, Arthur was not silent on the subject. "No dalliances. None," he intoned at the Pentecost Feast. "Be formal with them at all times." This particular feast, of course, was also the occasion to kick off the Pentecost Tournament, the grandest in the land and the official start of "tournament season," as it had come to be known. This year many knights, including Loholt, were sitting the Pentecost Tournament out - Lancelot was, for once, present in the city and entering himself! Only a small minority of brave and/or foolhardy knights dared test themselves against the greatest in the land. Predictably, Lancelot swept all before him, winning the joust, the melee, and the four personal challenges levied against him by younger knights out to make a name for themselves.
Loholt enjoyed the spectacle of watching a master at work, but he also took time during the Tournament's quiet interludes to stroll about the grounds, situated outside the walls of the Caratacus Keep. One one particular brilliant spring day a gentle breeze stirred the blossoms of a flower arbor, luring Loholt in. Within the arbor's green walls, he found a meeting convening. Many knights and ladies, all in their finest courtly garb, were assembled, their attention focused on a set of chairs placed beneath a bower of roses. Looking around, he recognized Gawaine standing off to the side. Loholt joined the crowd, wondering what was about to transpire.
"The Court of Love has assembled in judgment of matters of the heart. I am the Lady Rose and I serve the Queen of Hearts," she said, nodding towards Guenevere. "The first question to be put before the court is thus: Two knights serve the same lord, yet they love the same woman. The lady demands the knights fight a challenge to prove who loves her the most, even though this would violate the knights' solemn bond of brotherhood and service to their lord. Should they fight or no?"
At this, Lady Elyzabel stepped back and the Court of Love began talking amongst themselves. The gallery of witnesses also began to talk on the subject. Gawaine looked at Loholt. "What do you think?"
Loholt considered the question. It was indeed a sticky one. He thought immediately of Orlande, of course. He realized he would do anything she asked, even if it meant his banishment or death. "The wishes of my lady come first, always," he said. Gawaine looked both surprised and impressed.
"You would do well to seek service in the name of the Queen," he said. "You know she has formed her own group of loyal followers, the Queen's Knights? I am one, as is Lancelot." Loholt blushed, feeling at the same time that to be a Queen's Knight would be the most glorious thing he could ever hope for, greater even than the Round Table.
Lady Elyzabel stepped forward. "The Court has reached its decision. Matters of the heart always trump oaths of servitude. A true lover would do whatever is asked of him." Loholt grinned. He would seek audience with Guenevere later.
The opportunity presented itself in a few days. Loholt came before the Queen in the great hall Caratacus Keep, and in front of the throng of courtiers announced his intention to become a Queen's Knight. Guenevere smiled benignly, her eyes twinkling.
"You are one of the great lovers of our age, Sir Loholt," said the queen. "That is the most important qualification to be one of my knights. But I also demand that those who would swear allegiance to me are men of valor and adventure as well. Should you enter my service, I will require a task of you that proves this greatness on an annual basis. Is this a requirement you feel you can meet?"
"Yes, my queen," said Loholt without hesitation.
"Very well," said Guenevere. "I would then ask you to complete a task for me immediately to show that your actions match your words. Succeed and you shall be accepted among the ranks of the Queen's Knights.
"In my homeland of Cameliard some of the jewelry belonging to my deceased mother has been stolen by a band of robber knights. I bid you ride there and retrieve the jewels and, if possible, return the men to face justice."
Loholt thought of Lady Obilot, his grandfather Herringdale's twin sister and Guenevere's mother. Her beauty was said to be great indeed. "I will return with the jewels and the nefarious knights as quickly as possible, lady," Loholt said. And, with a courteous bow, he left the hall and prepared for the journey to Cameliard.
At noon, Loholt rode out of Camelot, heading west on the Salisbury road, appropriately via the Queen's Gate. He felt resplendent in his new armor, his new charger - a flecked chestnut stallion Loholt had dubbed Firebrand - trotting proudly, its shod hooves echoing through the gatehouse. By coincidence, he was departing at the same time as two other knights. Their faces were unfamiliar, but he recognized their heraldry as belonging to the house of the Orkneys, the clan of Gawaine. The knights hailed him as they fell into line, riding three abreast on the wide King's Road.
"I am Sir Loholt of the house of Broughton. Who do I have the honor of speaking to?"
"I am Sir Ywaine, son of King Uriens and Queen Morgan. This is my cousin, Sir Mordred." Both knights had raven black hair, but Ywaine's eyes sparkled with the striking emerald green of his mother. Mordred, meanwhile, grinned eagerly at Loholt. He was a young knight as well, possibly the same age, and was clearly itching for adventure. "Whither are you bound?" asked Ywaine.
Loholt was torn - he didn't want other knights to steal his glory or jeopardize his chances of getting into the Queen's Knights, but on the other hand he wasn't sure just what sort of challenges he was going to be facing. There might be safety in numbers. After a few moments of silence, he answered the query, explaining his quest. "You would be most welcome to ride with me," he concluded.
Ywaine and Mordred grinned widely. "Absolutely!" they both answered.
The trio made their way northwest to Cameliard under brilliant sapphire skies, the buzzing of bees in the clover audible over the wind whispering through the green fields of grain. Everywhere they went they were welcomed with great hospitality. Ywaine was already famous for his exploits, and Loholt found he was also well-known, both for his parentage as well as his status as paragon of the new breed of romantic knight. He was often asked to extol the virtues of his secret love, which he obliged gladly, much to the delight of the young maidens in attendance.
In due course, the knights reached Stafford Castle in Cameliard. There they were shown the tower room from which the jewels were pilfered. Three knights had come to Stafford seeking shelter from a spring rainstorm, only to make off with the treasure in the middle of the night!
"Our sheriff tracked their horses west but soon lost the trail. It seems likely, though, that they were making for the wilds of Cambria," said the castle's steward. "If you ride in pursuit, I caution you. 'Tis an untamed land of savages who will as soon slit your throat as offer you bread."
Despite these warnings, Loholt and his companions elected to continue riding. The jewels had been stolen over a fortnight ago, but perhaps the robbers, seeing no one was on their tail, would have grown complacent. The next morning the trio departed Stafford Castle and took a rough trail leading west; the dark Cambrian hills rose wild on the horizon.
The steward's warning had been most apt. Cambria was indeed an uncivilized land, and most nights were spent out under the stars instead of at the side of a warm hearth. There were no roads, only trails, and these were often faint or overgrown. Still, Ywaine proved a superb huntsman and soon they had the trail of the robbers. It appeared that they were faring little better in the untamed terrain, often going in circles or inadvertently doubling back.
One morning, as Loholt and his companions were breaking camp, they received a visitor. Loholt spotted him first: a small, rangy child with a dirty face and ragged, homespun clothing. "You, boy! What are doing here? We are knights on a quest. Do you bring a message?" The boy mutely shook his head, but he stepped forward, his eyes wide.
"What is a quest?" the boy asked. "What is a knight? What do these words mean?"
"You don't know what a knight is?" Loholt asked as Ywaine and Mordred snorted with laughter. "Well, you are looking at three of them right now. Have you seen any like us pass here?"
"No, I have never seen men like you," said the boy, then quickly: "What is that thing?" He pointed at Ywaine's shield. "This is a shield," said Ywaine, still trying to suppress a grin.
"And that?" the boy pointed at Mordred's helmet, hanging from the pommel of his saddle. He preceded to go through every point of the knights' harness, apparently fascinated. Loholt had never seen anyone so woefully ignorant. Even the meanest peasant knew what a sword was, but not this lad!
"Do you have any family nearby?" The boy blushed and giggled. "Do you need any help?" He shook his head. "Would you like us to take you to the nearest court?" He shook his head again; he really did seem phenomenally stupid.
"I think we'd best be off," said Mordred.
"True," said Loholt. "But I hate to leave this boy alone in the forest."
"I'm sure he's a local; he'll find his way home."
"No, I insist we take this boy with us. Maybe he's lost from his family."
"He's just a peasant, a country boy," said Ywaine.
"Are you a peasant?" asked Loholt. The boy didn't know that word, either. A cowbell rang off in the distance.
"I have to go!" shouted the boy. He ran up into the bush, then turned. "I will be a knight!" He turned and ran. Unable to contain themselves any longer, Ywaine and Mordred burst into gales of laughter. "Oh, what a tale to tell!" Ywaine chortled, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. Loholt, however, remained quiet.
Once back on the trail of the robbers, it was all business again. Ywaine still had the trail, and after several hours of riding through bracken-choked hills, a trail of smoke from a campfire was spotted. Thinking it could well be their quarry, the knights dismounted and proceeded forward quietly. Coming up through a thicket, they could see three rough knights in outdated, ill-maintained armor. Their rude camp had the look of having been lived in for several days.
Loholt and his companions withdrew a short distance and held a quickly-whispered parley. If these weren't the knights they were looking for, they didn't want to attack without cause. On the hand, there was much to be said for getting the drop on what was clearly a group of honorless thugs. In the end, practicality prevailed. Bursting from the undergrowth, the knights of Camelot ambushed the ruffians, who were out of armor and mostly unarmed. A quick search of the camp turned up two strongboxes full of jewels.
The knights were bound, back to back, in the center of their ratty camp. "You stole these from Stafford Castle?" asked Loholt, pointing at the strongboxes with his sword.
"So what if we did?"
"It's a disgrace! These belong to the Queen, and she may not show you as much mercy as we have here."
"So kill us then! You knights who claim to follow chivalry are just a bunch of hypocrites. We have not forgotten the old ways, the ways of the true warrior. You have grown soft and womanly."
"Our ways have at last brought peace to the land," Loholt countered.
"That is but an illusion!" The knight spat at Loholt, who Prudently controlled himself from retaliation.
"We're taking these rogues back to Camelot to face the King's justice."
"But one thing troubles me," said Ywaine. He turned to face the prisoners. "Where did you think you were going with all these jewels, bringing them out into this wilderness?"
"We were promised a great reward if we fetched these."
"By whom?" asked Loholt.
"The Queen of Norgales." Loholt's stomach dropped. The Queen of Norgales! Also known as his mother, Meleri. This fact seemed to be lost on Ywaine and Mordred, who knew Loholt only as Arthur's bastard. He did his best to conceal his apprehension.
This was not difficult, as the news that the party was close to Norgales had proven equally disturbing to the Orkney knights, albeit for far different reasons. "I had no idea we were so close to the land of the de Gales clan!" Mordred said, looking visibly nervous.
"The sons of Pellinore are no friends of ours," said Ywaine in answer to Loholt's querying look.
"Then you should ride with haste for Camelot," said Loholt. "I will continue on to Norgales. I wish to question Queen Meleri to see if these knights speak the truth."
"God go with you," said Ywaine. "They say she is a powerful sorceress. Watch yourself."
The three knights parted ways, the Orkneys heading east and Loholt heading north. After three days of making his way through trackless wilderness, he was at last picked up by border guards from Norgales. "Why do you trespass upon the lands of Queen Meleri?" the sergeant asked.
"I am her son, Loholt. May I not pay my own mother a visit?" The guards exchanged nervous glances, then began escorting Loholt along a track through the hills. Within a couple hours, the castle of Queen Meleri was in sight: it stood upon a rocky promontory, the waves of the sea crashing beneath it.
In the cavernous great hall, Loholt found Meleri seated on a mahogany throne, attended by a half-dozen handsome knights. Small dogs ran around barking madly and fighting over soup bones.
"My son. To what do I owe the pleasure?" Meleri asked, signalling a knight to pour Loholt a goblet of wine.
"I captured three knights who stole Queen Guenevere's jewels and said they were told to bring them to you. Is this true? Were you behind the theft?"
"It was not a theft," snapped Meleri before she could stop herself. Taking a deep breath, she continued. "But my dear cousin thinks those are her personal belongings, does she? Well, it's all in the family, as they say. I suppose she could have them if they're that important. I shall send her a letter explaining. It's none of your concern."
"As with nearly everything in terms of my life and yours?" Loholt asked, raising his goblet in toast.
"Indeed," said Meleri, toasting him back and smiling. She looked not a day older than when he had last seen her, nearly a decade ago.
With only his squire for company, Loholt made his way along narrow paths and hunting trails, gradually going in a vaguely southeasterly direction. After nearly a week of travel, he was nearing the borders of Escavalon. One evening, while setting up camp, he heard the sound of a pack of hunting dogs nearby. Thinking there might be knights in the area, he armed himself and went forth to investigate.
Although he didn't know it, Loholt found himself gazing upon a scene remarkably similar to one witnessed by his grandfather 46 years ago. A strange beast was pausing to drink water from a stream. As it did so, the baying of the dogs ceased. Once it began to move again, the baying started up. Loholt realized the sound of the dogs was coming from inside the creature! [At this point, Des fumbled Loholt's Faerie Lore roll to identify the Questing Beast.] He scratched his head in wonderment, completely unsure as to what he had just seen. Remembering some of the bestiaries he had perused at the monastery libraries of Camelot over the winter, he decided it must have been a giraffe - but how could such a creature have traveled so far from its native land of Ethiopia?
Some minutes passed as Loholt listened to the sound of the hunting dogs growing ever fainter. That sound was soon replaced by the sound of a mounted rider making his way through the undergrowth. Gripping his spear, Loholt spun around - and immediately gave a joyful cry of recognition. It was his Saracen friend, Sir Palomides!
"Good friend!" said Palomides in greeting. "What brings you out into the middle of this forsaken wilderness? And more importantly, have you seen a fabulous beast whose stomach makes the sound of barking dogs when it moves?"
"I have indeed! It was a giraffe and it went down that way, into the vale!"
Palomides roared with laughter. "That was not a giraffe, Sir Loholt! It was the magnificent Barking Beast - although now that I think on it," he said, curling his oiled beard, "I could see how you could make the mistake if you've never seen a giraffe in person."
"Are you hunting this beast?" asked Loholt in admiration.
"I am! Long ago, King Pellinore hunted it but he, the greatest hunter of his age, failed to take it. I think that if I can claim the prize, the fair Lady Isolt is bound to grant me her hand."
"Isolt, daughter of King Anguish? A great beauty, I have heard," said Loholt.
"Aye. She has won my heart, though she knows it not. Say, if you would like you could ride at my side in the hunt!"
Loholt hesitated. He wanted to get back to Camelot, both to deliver his findings from Meleri's castle as well as to be in time to attend the Midsummer visit of the King of Overthere. On the other hand... "Absolutely, friend!"
The two knights followed the Questing Beast's trail for the rest of the day, but they did not catch it up. That night, by the campfire, they traded tales of the ladies they loved.
"I pursue the Questing Beast, but I'm always on the lookout for more opportunities to exalt my love," said Palomides.
"Join the Queen's Knights and you will have many opportunities for such adventure! I am sure your pursuit of the Beast would qualify as a great and glorious deed."
"It is settled! We shall journey to Camelot together and petition the Queen. Perhaps we can seek for the Circle of Gold along the way."
"What is that?" Loholt asked.
"I don't know all the details myself, being a stranger in your land," said Palomides, "but there is said to be a village in the land of Cornwall where a circlet of pure gold rests atop a pole in the center of town. It is further said that any knight who takes it will be covered in glory - and that none have succeeded in the 40 years since it was raised."
"A worthy quest!" said Loholt. His spirits were soaring - at last, he was a knight out on Adventure, like his mentor Lancelot. Immediately, his head was filled with images of presenting the Circle of Gold to Orlande.
The next morning, the knights changed direction, heading now for Cornwall. As Loholt had thought, they soon passed into Escavalon and in Carlion they were feted by the aging, white-haired King Alain and his wife, Queen Heledd - Loholt's aunt. Over a supper of roast boar, Alain told the knights what he knew of the Circle of Gold.
"I remember when that was put up," he said. "The king of that land opposed Uther's attempts to unify Britain, saying he needed no high king to protect him or his people. He put the gold circle up as proof of the safety of his kingdom." Alain smiled sardonically. "He had a good point, it seems. The circle has never been taken, though it sits out in the open day and night. They say you can go and view it for yourselves. Only one knight at a time is allowed to venture the quest for the circle, however."
Loholt and Palomides did not linger long in Carlion, making haste for Cornwall via Somerset. After three days of riding, they encountered a band of knights wearing devices in the shape of gold circles. "Halt! You are entering the Kingdom of the Circle of Gold! If you would go any further without challenge, you must go unarmored and with only sword and dagger at your side."
The knights retired to talk it over. Palomides was all for proceeding on a scouting mission, as was Loholt, but the question was: who would take the challenge first? In the end, Loholt demurred; although he was more well-known, he owed most of his glory to his famous father.
After shedding their armor, the two knights returned to the Kingdom of the Circle of Gold. They were escorted by three knights, who took them along a country road bordered by expansive fields. Loholt looked around but could not discern anything strange, threatening, or otherwise out of the ordinary in the countryside that might account for the Circle's long-standing resistance to theft. The village, too, seemed perfectly normal in every way. And there stood the pole in the square, the circlet gleaming at its peak.
At this point Loholt bade farewell to Palomides, wishing him luck in his quest. Deep down, of course, Loholt hoped for a chance of his own to win the prize, but he did not begrudge Palomides getting a shot at it first. He rode away in a pensive mood, heading east across the dales and moors of Cornwall. In time he reached the Exe river. Knowing Exeter was a terminus of the King's Road, Loholt began riding along the riverbank, searching for a crossing and directions to the city.
He found both in the form of a quaint stone cottage, almost like a chapel, at the side of an ancient bridge. A small wall covered with wild ivy surrounded the house, and beyond grew many beautiful flowers. An old woman in a dark brown shift and shawl could be seen tending the flowers with a hoe. Ominously, outside the wall stood a knight's horse caked in mud and dried blood.
The old woman straightened up and looked at Loholt with her silver-gray eyes. "Welcome to my home, good knight. I am Mother Yarrow. I take it you have come to see the boy?"
"What boy? All I see is this horse."
"That is his horse. A local farmer brought them to me the day before yesterday. Dressed in the clothes of a squire, he was. He was grievous injured and I have tended to his wounds as best I can, but terror's breath still fills him. It mayhap be that only one such as you can aid him to expel it."
Loholt dismounted and was brought into the cottage, its interior perfumed with the scents of fresh blooms and pungent poultices. A bruised and battered boy lay in fitful slumber. As Loholt looked on, the boy mumbled in his sleep something about a giant attacking his master. Mother Yarrow laid a hand on his forehead. "A measure of Arianrod's Song should do and a small draught of Valerian's Tincture," she muttered, puttering off to her extensive shelves crammed with jars and pouches. The sound of a mortar and pestle grinding could be heard, and then Mother Yarrow was back with a wooden cup bearing a foul-smelling brown liquid. She tipped it into the boy's mouth and he drank.
"The draught I prepared will allow the squire time to rest and perhaps provide information later in the day," she said, looking up at Loholt.
"Is there anything I can do in the meantime?" Loholt offered. Mother Yarrow set him a list of tasks, most of which Loholt delegated to his squire, as they were beneath the station of a knight to perform. He did, however, go give the sleeping squire's horse a thorough cleaning and rub-down. Once this was done, he went to seek out Mother Yarrow while his own squire was busily re-thatching part of the roof overhead. Loholt found the old crone around back, in a rose garden that rivaled that of Queen Guenevere's.
"My arbor has seen many visitors here in recent weeks. It is a local tradition for summer lovers to exchange messages using roses; each color carries with it the message the lover wishes to convey. I am sure a knight such as yourself is already familiar with the custom." Loholt [making his Romance roll] had indeed heard of the custom but was unfamiliar with the meaning of each bloom. Seeing an opportunity, Loholt told Mother Yarrow of the beautiful Orlande, his great love - and how she had been given the hand of another man. Mother Yarrow thought a bit, then plucked an indigo rose.
"This is an enduring and unyielding rose; it says, 'I will fight for your love.'" As Loholt considered his flower, Mother Yarrow drew a bucket of water up from the garden's well. "They say the river that feeds this well leads to an underground kingdom ruled by the Queen of Spring. I think that is why my roses are so admired."
As the day grew late, Mother Yarrow took Loholt inside. The young squire was looking much better and was alert and awake. As soon as he saw Loholot's tabard, however, he began to tremble.
"Y-you're a knight?" he asked, visibly nervous.
"I am," said Loholt kindly. "What is your name?"
"J-Jakin, sire. Squire to the late Sir Dray." Then, suddenly, Jakin threw himself forward, clutching Loholt's hands. "Please forgive my cowardice! I ran! I ran!"
"I forgive you," said Loholt. "If that horse is any indication, it was a bloody mess indeed. What happened?"
Jakin began telling a tale of how his master and his brothers in arms came to Cornwall to investigate rumors of a foul custom of human sacrifice. After talking to local folk, Sir Safere learnt that the custom took place in the town of Padstow. It was said that each May Day, a maiden from town was chosen to become the Bride of the Thorn. She was taken to the edge of Morris Forest where she was tied to a pole of thorns. There she would stay, her flesh pierced by the long thorns, until her body was drained of blood. None would say why this thing was done, only that it was done at the behest of the local lord, Sir Garowin. Upon hearing of this custom, the knights vowed to put an end to this practice and headed out to Padstow Town with all haste. Towards midday of the second afternoon of riding, a sorrowful keening filled the air. Sir Henworth said the wailing was a warning of death to come and that the knights should ride from its cries, but Sir Safere would hear none of this and ordered the knights to ride with him to investigate the source of the wails. As the knights rode closer to the sound of the cries, the noise grew more sorrowful, bringing tears to the eyes of many of them and causing Sir Redigar to dismount from his horse and fall to his knees, confessing his adultery and begging forgiveness. "It was then that the giant strode out of the woods, his roars drowning out the sound of the wailing!" said Jakin, his eyes the size of platters. "There was nothing the knights could do to harm the beast. They were all killed," he finished flatly.
"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself. There was no shame in running when there was nothing you could do, especially after the knights ignored a warning to their peril," said Loholt.
"Indeed," said Mother Yarrow. "They heard the Hag of Warning. Her cries have been heard in these parts for nearly four years now. Some say her cries warn of an impending death, others say she mourns for a dead lover. Either way, when you hear her moans, death is never far behind. The giant they fought was probably Bolster. It is said that he lives in the Blackdown Hills and is invulnerable. Stay well away from that one and concentrate on those you can defeat!"
Loholt stayed the night at Mother Yarrow's cottage, then set out for Camelot in the morning with Jakin along for the ride. "We shall find you a new master there," Loholt promised the lad. Silently, he resolved to return to this part of Cornwall as soon as he could to stop this bizarre tradition - but how to defeat an unbeatable giant? This warranted some thinking about.
Following Mother Yarrow's directions, Loholt made for Exeter, where he found the court of King Mark of Cornwall in session. Naturally, Loholt presented himself before the king, who did not seem in much of a mood to entertain guests. Loholt recognized the knight plucking the harp in the corner: it was the mysterious "Sir Tramtrist" from the Wexford tournament of a couple summers ago. Mark remained in a foul mood all evening. Engaging in some discreet gossip, Loholt found out why: apparently the king's attempts at playing the Romance game were publicly rebuffed by the object of his affections, a married lady of the court.
Loholt departed Exeter the next day and reached Camelot with four days to spare before the Midsummer festivities. He made his report to Guenevere, who thanked him for his service. "I have had a letter from my cousin," said Guenevere, holding up a folded piece of parchment, "and everything is straightened out." She handed the parchment to one of a pair of mute dwarfs who had come to court as her personal assistants a year or two ago. Loholt watched the dwarf scuttle off. "And the knights we captured?" he asked.
"Ransomed," said Guenevere, "by a certain Sir Breuse. He paid a heavy indemnity to cover the trouble they caused. I thank you for stopping them, Sir Loholt. She signaled to the other dwarf, who stepped forward and presented Loholt with an embroidered badge displaying Guenevere's coat of arms. "Wear that as a symbol of your service to me. You are now free to call yourself a Queen's Knight."
And so Loholt found himself sitting in the hot and stuffy hall as the summer sun cast golden light in from the windows despite the late hour. A fanfare of trumpets announced the entry of the king's court. All was silent as the assembly gawped in wonder; never before had anything like this been seen in Camelot - or indeed in Britain.
Knights and ladies in resplendent garb surpassing the work of the finest tailors walked solemnly in, two by two. Among this stately procession ran strange creatures, some little larger than a dog, others lumbering along, as large as giants. They had strange, grotesque features and wore outrageous clothes that seemed to mock court fashion. With a stab of fear, Loholt recognized the Redcap who had terrorized him years ago during his brief stint as Lancelot's squire.
"I thought Lancelot killed that thing," Loholt muttered, cold sweat beading up on his forehead.
At last, the long-awaited king entered. His court parted and he walked deliberately up the red carpet leading to the great dais where sat Arthur and Guenevere beside an empty throne that awaited their legitimate heir.
"Your highness," said the king with a regal sweep of a bow. "You may call me King Today of Overthere."
After formal introductions were made, Arthur ordered the trestle tables brought out and the feast was on! As the boards began to creak under the masses of food and drink being brought up from the kitchens, the Bishop of Marlboro engaged Loholt in conversation.
"I do not like the look of these guests," he said, eyeing the unearthly beauty of the lords and ladies who now sat at the tables nearest Arthur's own. "I fear they are agents of the Adversary."
A guffaw of laughter cut through the general chatter. Looking down the table, Loholt recognized young Mordred! He gave a jaunty wave, then looked at the bishop. "The only sins these creatures have committed are visible in their choice of clothing!"
Drink flowed readily that night - at Loholt's table, Mordred kept calling for more - but Loholt remained temperate, wishing to observe the strange new guests. As the sky grew dark outside, Arthur rose and gave a toast to his guests. As the toast was being given, Loholt kept looking at King Today, seated at the high table next to Guenevere. As the toast ended and everyone moved to take a drink, the strange king suddenly turned and looked Loholt straight in the eye - then winked! "What was that about?" Loholt wondered.
At this point, King Today began to speak of his home kingdom, but Loholt was only interested in seeing if his lady love, Orlande, was in the hall. Casting his eyes around the hall, he at last spotted her, seated next to her husband Gondrins. Loholt's stomach dropped; she was wearing the gold armband he had sent her last year! He went into a reverie that was interrupted only by a knight roughly shaking his shoulder.
"Loholt!" It was Sir Palomides.
"Hm? Oh! I didn't know you were here, friend," said Loholt, shaking his head experimentally as if recovering from a terrible blow.
"I have just arrived," said Palomides, who indeed still bore the dirt of the road upon his clothes. He slumped down on the bench at Loholt's side. "I failed the quest for the Circle of Gold."
"What happened?" Loholt asked, shocked.
"I am bound by an oath of secrecy," said Palomides. "All I can say is that my shield now hangs on display for a year and a day to advertise my failure. Oh, woe! The Lady Isolt will never wish for the hand of a knight such as I!"
"Nonsense!" said Loholt bracingly. "Here, let me help you write a poem to send her." And so, inspired by his love for Orlande, Loholt composed a timeless lyric:
Te vigilans oculis, animo te nocte requiro,victa iacent solo cum mea membra toro.Vidi ego me tecum falsa sub imagine somni.Somnia tu vinces, si mihi vera venis.
(By day mine eyes, by night my soul desires thee,Weary, I lie alone.Once in a dream it seemed thou wert beside me;O far beyond all dreams, if thou wouldst come!)After completing the poem, Loholt floated away, still elated that his beloved was wearing his favor. He found the streets one giant party. He attempted to join in the revelries, but managed nothing more than some dancing and light kissing. Orlande's glowing face kept hovering into his consciousness, cutting him off from the rest of the crowd.
The following day, though, Loholt partook of more ale and wine and at last forgot himself in the revels. The morning of the third day of King Today's visit, he awoke in the chambers of the guest house he was staying at with a young peasant girl in his arms.
That afternoon was to be the farewell feast. Many knights in attendance looked like they had been celebrating just as hard as Loholt, if not moreso. Mordred and his companions looked like they were already drunk. King Today and his retinue, on the other hand, still looked immaculate. Today sat at the high table and, as Arthur's guests were announced and entered the hall, he made select comments, to the effect of: "Oh! After he left, Sir Ambrut’s lady had a child and the pair have wondered when he will return." Ripples of scandalized gossip passed through the growing assembly with each comment.
Once everyone had entered and been seated, King Today rose and spoke. "I know these men because they have intruded into my lands. My barons are complaining. There have been many such slayings, thefts, and kidnappings." He took a polite sip of wine from a golden horn. No one spoke; all were within his thrall.
"I am not unhappy with this," King Today continued, "for it keeps my knights alert. It waters the fields with blood. And in fact, I know that this aggression is due to the high ideals of Adventure and Quest, which are ways that I myself support from the depths of my being. In our great leadership, our wisdom, and our mutual love for adventure and quest, you and I are alike," he said, nodding courteously to Arthur.
"It is not often that two great monarchs meet face to face in peace. But here we are, you and I. So this visit is a meeting of peace. Let me be clear: that the intrusions of your knights into my realm are expected, and accepted. And by the same coin, I am here to warn you that folk from my kingdom have also been freed, by your own actions, from our centuries-old promise to stay out of Britain. We too shall be found in your lands seeking adventure."
"We welcome that, my friend," said King Arthur, "and I too pledge to maintain peace between us and our kingdoms, no matter what passions our great followers bring to us." Arthur raised his golden goblet. "To Peace," he said, "and Adventure."
The spell broken, the feast got under way. Loholt found himself harassed by some of Sir Tor's hunting hounds, but he cannily distracted them by throwing a juicy portion of roast venison. As the dogs tore off to fight over the meat, he received an appreciative nod from the lady he had smiled at the other night. "Pray, who is that lady?" he asked the damsel seated beside him.
"That is Lady Jeane of Broad Chalke. She is Countess Katherine's chief handmaiden."
Countess Katherine of Salisbury! So Lady Jeane was a local girl. As he ate, Loholt considered the possibility of marriage. As much as he loved Orlande, there was no reason for him to put off a profitable dowry or the siring of heirs. Perhaps he would return to Sarum this year, the better to get to know Lady Jeane and keep a close eye on Orlande.
The feast concluded with a small group of elfin minstrels singing a lay that concerned their personal witnessing of Brutus arriving in Britain many centuries ago. As Today's court rose and left the hall to the accompaniment of the music, Loholt felt a great sadness overtake him. These people were apparently ageless like the gods; how many great tragedies and love affairs had their jaded eyes witnessed?
Ah, but Loholt was young and so was his love. Before departing Camelot, he dispatched his squire to carry a gift to Orlande: a single indigo rose.
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