Monday, July 23, 2012

[Solo GPC] 533: Ah, Paris

A short session this time, but a fun one.

Loholt, as planned, wintered over as a guest of Earl Robert at Sarum. The Earl was planning an ambitious rebuilding program come the thaw, an extensive overhaul of the city's antiquated defenses. Word had it that Robert was not alone, that even Arthur had ordered the regrading and paving of most stretches of the King's Road and that many other lords throughout the land were planning on upgrading or building castles.

The previous year's harvest in Salisbury had been a bountiful one, and Robert was in an expansive mood. Accordingly, he called for a tournament to celebrate the Yule holiday. It was a small, neighborhood affair with only about 50 knights in attendance, but Loholt looked at it as a perfect opportunity to impress Orlande with his martial prowess. Inspired by her presence, he did fairly well in the joust, making it to the quarter-finals, and did very well in the melee, fighting on the winning team and personally ransoming two knights, earning seven libra and a palfrey in the process [along with checks to Worldly and Selfish].

At the Yule feast, Orlande made it known through indirect channels that she wished to hear a composition from Loholt; the poem he had penned for Palomides the year before was still circulating among the courts of Logres. Inspired to greatness by his lady love, Loholt wrote and recited the following lyric:
By the dread force of love am I thus worn,
On the wheel of desire am I thus torn,
I stifle in the fire.
O merciful, bid thou my torment cease!

Thou spark of living fire,
Kindling the very secrets of desire,
Bowed o'er so fierce a flame,
I set thee on my heart as with a seal.

Mourns now the heart for that which made it glad;
That day when first of thee it knowledge had,
It chose thee for its love,
Chose thee, unsullied, none beside thee, none.

Now naught but sighing breaks forth from my breast,
Tumult of sorrow will not let me rest,
Strong love of thee
Urges me on, and to it am I bound.

O virgin lily, come thou to mine aid,
Thine exile prays thee to be comforted,
He knows what he does.
And if thou wilt not succor him, he dies.

O thou on whom Desire hath no power,
Thou in whom Chastity's reborn in flower,
Sweet still regard,
Thou who hast truth about thee for a cloak,

I sing to thee, I sing to thee alone.
Despise him not, who asks this only boon,
That he may worship thee,
Thou who dost shine above him like a star.
So beautiful and touching were his words that Robert's court sat in stunned silence when he had finished. Loholt risked a quick glance in Orlande's direction and saw a single teardrop trailing down her cheek, glistening in the firelight.

Loholt was less successful with marital politics. His attempts to make it known that he was interested in courting Lady Jeane of Broad Chalke largely fell flat. There was also bad news from abroad: Sir Hugo de Ganis, one of the richest landholders in Ireland, had been murdered - assassinated - in Dublin! Loholt recalled his brief Irish campaign under Sir Hugo's banner, the campaign that had won him his manor beyond the Pale. Seemed like trouble was brewing there now, but at who's hand it was impossible to say - the assassin had gotten away, his identity unknown. In the absence of a real name, wags at court had dubbed him "The Boy Without Bowels".

The news about Sir Hugo reached Sarum shortly after Easter and at the same time as a messenger from Camelot arrived bearing a sealed message from Queen Guenevere herself, to be delivered personally to Sir Loholt. It was a summons for Loholt to attend to some business in his capacity as a Queen's Knight. Departing Sarum at once, Loholt was at Camelot in two days' time.

He arrived to find the court abuzz regarding the pending nuptials of Guenevere's cousin and chief handmaiden, Lady Elyzabel. She was to be wed to Lord Philip, himself cousin to the French king Childebert. The two had met when Philip had accompanied a royal French ambassador to Camelot last year, and Philip had proven himself to be a great romantic suitor. Guenevere had given the order the two be married, which pleased both greatly. The wedding was to take place in Paris and, as Loholt was informed when he presented himself at court before the king and queen, he was to provide an escort to Elyzabel and her wedding party (which included two wagonloads of goods and treasure constituting her dowery). Loholt, naturally, replied that it would be his honor to escort Elyzabel.

He ended up hanging around Camelot for six weeks while preparations dragged on. He noted with some sadness that May Day had come and gone, along with his aspirations to return to Cornwall and investigate the annual sacrifice of the Bride of the Thorn. He vowed to do so next year, that no more young maidens need die.

Life at Camelot was as lively as ever. Loholt spent many days simply loitering around court, observing the many comings and goings of knights and nobles, engaging in petty gossip - many courtiers held firm to the conviction that Paris was a living cesspool compared to Camelot - or else telling tales of his own and others' exploits. He watched sadly as Kay bullied and battered the poor pages and kitchen boys in his charge. He went for long rides, hawking and hunting across the countryside. But when word came it was time to depart, he did so gladly, anxious for adventure and happy to travel to the Continent and see a city he'd never visited before.

"Besides," he mused, "I'm sure I can find a suitable gift for Orlande while I'm there."

Leaving Camelot early in the morning, the weather was perfect. Cool summer rains had given way to a dewey mist. Off in the distance, a stag browsed lazily through the meadow while closer to a cat and dog bathed each other. This latter sight rather alarmed Loholt, but it at least provided some distraction from the ceaseless tittering and banter that was already flowing from the mouths of Elyzabel and her maids, riding side-saddle in a strung-out line along the road, oxcarts and their drivers lumbering along behind them.

Soon the mist burned off and a hot summer sun rose high in the sky. Loholt reached a crossroads and knew he had two choices of direction: continuing on the King's Road would eventually take him to Portchester. It was a longer ride by about a day, but probably safer. The other road would take him through the Camelot Forest and on to Hantonne, closer by but less trafficked and more vulnerable to ambush. Despite lengthening his time in the company of Elyzabel and her retinue, he chose to take the Portchester route. The highest priority for him was ensuring a smooth journey, proving himself to Guenevere on his first mission as a Queen's Knight.

Loholt found the going even slower than he'd anticipated, however. As a primary artery between a major port and Camelot, the Portchester road was crowded almost year-round, but during the height of summer the crowds were the worst. Peasants on foot jostled with haywains and lumbering wagons bringing crops in from the country, competing for space with retinues of the gentry, much like the one Loholt was heading. Most unexpected, however, was late in the day when Loholt encountered a complete stoppage of road traffic. Travellers milled about, spilling out into the surrounding fields, where flocks of goats and sheep had been let loose to graze by their drovers, who were instead sitting atop halted wagons, craning their necks to see what was causing the holdup.

"Make way in the name of Queen Guenevere!" Loholt bellowed. Slowly, people began to move out of the way. Loholt spurred his horse forward, swimming through the thronging crowd. As he did so, he saw a fellow knight doing the same but in the opposite direction. He recognized the knight's arms to be those of a household knight of the lord of Portchester.

"Sir Loholt!" said the knight, clearly recognizing his own arms. "Thank goodness. The bridge across the Itchen has been blocked by a surpassing strange knight. He says that he will allow no traffic to pass until he is knocked off his horse! I myself and several other knights have tried, but he is great in size and skill of arms."

Loholt wasn't terribly confident he'd do any better - the lance had never been his strongest weapon; during his tutelage under Sir Asser, he had only defeated the quintain once! Nevertheless, he knew he had to try. Steeling himself, he rode on. About a quarter-mile down the road flowed the River Itchen, spanned by a wide Roman bridge. On the near side of the river stood a tent of vibrant green silk. A charger in magnificent tack of tooled leather and gold stood placidly nearby. Loholt noted its strange markings: white with vertical stripes. And it was huge! Feeling increasingly less confident, he approached the tent, which had been given a wide berth by the travelers nearest on the road.

At the sound of Loholt's jangling armor, the tent's resident emerged. Ducking under the tent flap, he straightened up, revealing himself to be nearly half-again as tall as Loholt. He wore striking armor, too. Fashioned in the form of all-encompassing plates, it looked to have been made not of steel but of birch bark. His great helm, also bark-like, extended up into an entwining crown of roots and branches that stretched a further foot above the knight's already imposing stature. A runty dwarf that reminded Loholt of his mother's attendant Higgins ran forth and handed the Birch Knight his lance, which the knight then raised as he bellowed his challenge.

"No one, neither gentry nor villein, shall be allowed to cross this bridge ere I am felled!"

"Very well! I shall do my best in the name of the queen!" Loholt retorted, donning his helm. He took a lance from his squire Adtherp and guided Firebrand into a position to charge. As he did so, he pictured Orlande and thought of the glory he would win in her name by defeating this otherworldly knight. Gritting his teeth, his eyes ablaze, he spurred Firebrand forward - and his lance connected solidly, shattering against the Birch Knight's shield! Wheeling Firebrand around, he was stunned to see the knight still seated, however. His blow had barely shaken the knight, who was already positioning himself for another charge.

This time it was the Birch Knight's turn to connect, and Loholt had never been struck by such a bone-jarring blow. He was airborne without even realizing it, then he hit the ground hard, tumbling. Adtherp helped Loholt to his feet as the Birch Knight retired to his tent. "Well," Loholt reflected, "at least I managed to shatter a lance on his shield before he knocked me down." A standard rule had developed at tournament jousts: break your lance three times on your opponent's shield and you would be considered the victor. Would this strange knight abide by such a rule? Would any other knight last long enough to find out? Loholt began to consider the possibility of doubling back and taking the road to Hantonne instead. Clearly this was a knight of King Today's court. Loholt reflected on the king's words at the leaving feast last year, when he had promised that some of "his" men would be visiting "your" lands.

The sun was skimming the treelike when another knight did indeed present himself. At first Loholt did not recognize him, for he rode without a shield - then, that very fact sparked a flame of recognition.

"Sir Palomides!" Loholt called out. "I see you still haven't gotten your shield back."

"Sadly, no," Palomides said, riding up and saluting Loholt. "I return to Cornwall to fetch it next month, as per the oath I swore. But what of this milling crowd? Travelers clog the road a league or more!"

Loholt explained the situation. "If I may borrow your shield," said Palomides, humbly, "perhaps I might venture a challenge with this mysterious Birch Knight." Loholt graciously lent Palomides his shield and watched his Saracen friend ride forth. Palomides clashed with the Birch Knight three times. Although he did not unseat him, Palomides broke three lances against the Birch Knight's ornate shield. The Birch Knight dismounted after the third pass.

"I shall allow travelers to cross this bridge until sunup tomorrow, since this knight has broken three lances upon me. But I will not leave this spot until I am knocked from my saddle - my challenge stands anew once the sun comes out!"

Loholt congratulated Palomides on a joust well fought as he accepted his shield back. "Pity he'll still be here tomorrow," said Loholt, "but that's a job for another knight. I am off for Paris!" Palomides rode along to Portchester, where he wished Loholt safe travels. The Channel crossing proved uneventful, as did the trip inland from Barfleur to Paris. In due time, the French capital came into view.

It was indeed pale in comparison to Camelot's glory, but Loholt thought it a perfectly lovely city nonetheless. After presenting Lady Elyzabel and her retinue to King Childebert and Lord Philip, Loholt took time to wander the twisting streets of Paris, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells while keeping an eye out for an appropriate gift for Orlande. Nearly every guest room in the city was rented out; it seemed the entirety of French chivalry, along with many knights from Britain, had turned out for this wedding! Loholt was pleased to note that the French knights seemed generally accommodating, the memories of Arthur's campaigns in their lands apparently forgotten. Most of the talk among knights of all nationalities centered around the tournament that was due to be held after the wedding. It was said that Childebert had spared no expense in preparing to host a grand tourney, so anxious was he to demonstrate the chivalrous nature of French knights. Loholt anxiously looked forward to entering.

A week later and the wedding went off without a hitch. Philip and Elyzabel were wed and there was much feasting and drinking in the great hall of the French king. The following morning, Loholt presented himself down on the tournament grounds, fully armed and ready to enter his name on the lists. The rules and rituals of the tournament were quickly becoming codified, and Loholt went through the motions without embarrassing himself. His helm and shield was displayed along with those of the other entrants. He noted several knights had adorned their helmets with papier mache sculptures representing symbols from their heraldry. Loholt also noted the arms of Sir Lamorak de Gales, one of the greatest knights of the Round Table.

There weren't as many helms on display as a tournament of this size would have normally indicated - a mere 500 - and the reason was clear: Paris was suffering under an unseasonable heat wave. Temperatures had been steadily climbing ever since Loholt had arrived a week ago, and today promised to be hotter than ever. It was early morning and he was already sweating. This did not dissuade him, however.

"I would like to issue a formal challenge to Sir Lamorak of the Round Table," Loholt told the Master of the Lists. Those within earshot began to whisper to each other, casting Loholt appraising looks. For his part, Loholt simply threw his shoulders back and tried to look as imposing as his small frame would allow. The Master of the Lists impassively took down the names. "What are your terms?" he asked, without glancing up from his ledger.

"On foot to surrender. Each knight may choose his own weapon."

Later that day were the jousts. Loholt entered these as well, but was knocked out in the first round. He watched the remainder of the competition from the sidelines, along with the hundreds of knights who had opted not to risk heat stroke under the blazing sun. Lamorak was the victor. As he took his lap of honor, he slowed his horse as he passed Loholt.

"I'll be fighting you tomorrow, I hear." Loholt nodded. "Beast of luck!" Lamorak shouted, and he rode off to collect his trophy.

Loholt slept poorly in his tent that night, drenched in sweat brought on by the sultry evening air as well as nerves. The next day, however, he rose determined to show his mettle in single combat.

It turned out that this was one of the marquis fights of the day: Arthur's bastard against one of the greatest knights in the land! Thousands had turned out to witness the challenge, although only those in the royal grandstand had a decent view. As he took the field, Loholt knew he was fighting for his personal Honor. He felt infused with strength and determination and didn't bat an eyelash when Lamorak arrived bearing his choice of weapon, a massive greatsword.

The two knights squared off, bowed, and then began circling, looking for an opening. Both essayed light jabs and swings, testing the other. Then began an epic battle, neither knight being able to land a decisive blow. Lamorak had the greater skill, but Loholt was a man possessed. Each knight began to accumulate many small hurts, their armor torn in many places, blood seeping through. Loholt's shield was in tatters, Lamorak's sword notched from parrying heavy blows. The combat went on for what felt like hours before Lamorak finally landed a telling blow. Loholt went down under the force of the greatsword. Lamorak stood back. "Yield," he commanded.

Loholt, sweat pouring down his face behind his helm, shook his head and slowly, valorously got back to his feet as the crowd cheered. With a great shout, Loholt threw himself back into combat, hacking viciously as Lamorak was forced to give ground, parrying for all he was worth. Once, twice, thrice, Loholt landed blows, but all failed to draw blood or stagger the famous knight. Again the knights found themselves locked in stalemate, exchanging blow and counter-blow to little effect save for increasing exhaustion.

Loholt could feel his strength ebbing. Summoning one last reserve, he raised his sword high and brought it crashing down, knocking Lamorak's parry aside and rending his armor. Blood flowed freely from the shoulder wound, but still the Round Table knight refused to yield. Loholt found himself regretting he had not stipulated a fight to first blood.

And then it was Lamorak's turn to come back with a second wind. Loholt tried to fend off the swinging greatsword, but his strength was gone. One final blow and he was down. This time he could not bring himself to rise. He submitted. As soon as he did, Lamorak collapsed as well. Both knights were conveyed off the field by their squires as the crowd roared its approval.

[A truly epic contest! With both knights impassioned by their Honor (Loholt critically so), almost every combat round was a tied Crit, inflicting 1d3 damage on each knight and resulting in a battle of attrition. Loholt was the first to reach Unconscious, but Lamorak was only a couple points behind!]

Back in his tent, Loholt was administered spiced wine and honey and he slowly regained his senses. Many knights stopped by as he recovered to offer their congratulations on a battle well-fought. To have gone toe-to-toe with such a great knight and to nearly come out on top was worth almost as much as winning the joust to many of these admirers. Loholt smiled softly to himself and sank into a deep sleep as the sun began to go down. Tomorrow was the melee...

Loholt awoke refreshed on the morn [damage accrued from tied Crits is temporary in my house rules] and headed out for the tournament grounds. As he made his way down along with a large crowd of knights and onlookers, he heard a curious sound that reminded him of a large trumpet. The source of the sound soon became apparent, as did the fact that this promised to be no ordinary melee. King Childebert had indeed pulled out all the stops.

"No, there are no teams," the Master of the Lists was explaining as Loholt arrived. "All who enter will cooperate against a single opponent, this team of noblemen from Persia riding their elephant."

The objective was to capture two ribbons, one red and one white, that hung from the elephant's howdah. The Persians would fire blunt-tipped arrows and wield rebated great spears. Any knight hit was obliged to leave the melee and later pay a fee in the sum of one librum to the Persians. Between the monetary risks and the ongoing heat wave, the melee had even fewer takers than the joust - only a couple dozen entered. Loholt and Lamorak were among that number.

The melee took place that afternoon. In contrast to the small number of entrants, the size of the crowd of spectators was massive. It seemed all of Paris had turned out to witness the Battle of the Elephant! Loholt rode onto the field wielding his rebated sword. He could see the ribbons, each about six feet long, fluttering from the howdah. Then came a hail of Persian arrows. Determined to maintain the honor he had accrued in his fight with Lamorak, Loholt easily knocked aside the arrows that came his way with his shield and charged forward. About half the knights fighting had not been as lucky, but Loholt quickly spotted Lamorak among the number who had made it through the storm.

Both knights charged right up to the great beast. As it turned to face Lamorak, Loholt swiped at its tree-trunk-sized leg with his blunt sword. He connected solidly - and, much to his amazement, the elephant lifted up the struck leg as if wounded!

"Aim for the legs!" Loholt shouted. As arrows continued to fly, the knights of Britain and France darted in, swiping at the elephant's legs. Lamorak landed a blow on another limb and now the elephant was standing, balanced on its hind legs as its riders desperately clung to the their howdah. The crowd erupted with screams of delight. Loholt rode through a hail of arrows and struck out, but his blow was weak. Lamorak followed up, however, with a more telling strike, "crippling" the third leg.

At this the elephant returned to all fours, but then daintily laid itself down on the ground, pretending to be dead. The Persian riders dismounted the howdah and took up great spears, forming a ring around the elephant and the two ribbons. Loholt charged in, aiming for the red ribbon. His furious blow was deflected by an equally furious parry. He wheeled his charger back around, drove in again. This time Firebrand buffeted the Persian out of the way as Loholt's blunted sword cracked the spearman's collarbone, so forceful was his blow. He reached out and grabbed the red ribbon!

"Victory!" Loholt cried, racing Firebrand around the field as the crowd cheered. Looking over, Loholt saw that Lamorak had recovered the white ribbon. The fight was over! Ten minutes later, Loholt was in the royal grandstand alongside Lamorak. King Childebert and the lord of the Persians stood before him, beaming.

"Congratulations on your victories, sir knights," said Childebert. "In accordance with the wishes of our guest, you shall each receive a prize appropriate to the ribbon you took."

The Persian stepped forward. "Sir Lamorak," he said, "for taking the white ribbon, you win the Elephant Cup." Another of the Persians stepped up bearing a massive sterling silver vessel with embossed elephants on the sides. Lamorak took the cup, smiling his thanks. Loholt looked on, worried that he might have picked the wrong ribbon.

"And for you Sir Loholt," said the Persian lord, "I give you the bearer of the cup in service for a year and a day." Loholt looked on in frank surprise as the cup-bearer smiled at him.

"" he said, unsure of what this meant.

"As your manservant to with as you wish," said the cup-bearer.

"Oh. Uh. Thank you?" said Loholt as Lamorak tried not to chuckle.

On the ride back to Barfleur the next day, Loholt chatted with his Persian manservant, trying to figure out what to do with him. He had already proven himself a courteous and chivalrous person, and thoughtful too. He had helped Loholt pick out a bolt of Venetian lace to take back to Orlande before they had departed Paris that morning. Loholt considered the possibility of giving the Persian to Orlande as a gift as well, but was not sure if the Persian would steal his beloved's heart.

["What's his Appearance?" Des asked. "Um...exotic?" I answered.]

In the end, Loholt decided against such a direct move. [Des rolled a Crit on Loholt's Suspicious trait.] However, he could see a use for his Persian as a tutor in the ways of Romance. And so Loholt sailed for Britain with his squire and a Persian manservant/tutor.

Returning via Hantonne (lest the Birch Knight still be tying up traffic on the road from Portchester), Loholt came to Camelot to give his report to Queen Guenevere. His tale - and the "prize" he brought back - were the talk of court for several days.

Loholt pondered what to do next. He thought of the challenge of the Circle of Gold. Palomides had failed, and now he was free to try to win it. But not next year. There was a wrong to right first. Remembering his visit to Mother Yarrow last year, Loholt made a determination to head to Cornwall come the spring, hopefully in time to make sure that no maidens were ever sacrificed in Padstow Town again.
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