Saturday, November 17, 2012

[Solo GPC] 534: Roses and Thorns

This year's session was, for the most part, a "solo" Pendragon game in name only, as we were joined by two guest players! D. and S. are from our regular weekly group, and as that week's regular game was cancelled, we decided to run Pendragon instead. The players both had characters from a campaign Des had run last year that ended, coincidentally enough, right around the same time as the current GPC continuity, so we did our own version of FLAILSNAILS and brought in Sir Blaine and Sir Madog for a guest appearance for the main portion of this year's events.

After returning from his sojourn to Paris, Loholt spent the winter in Sarum. His Persian manservant caused some chatter among the courtiers of the Earl's hall, and even some jealousy - Loholt was the target of a whisper campaign, causing him to lose a point of Just as he attempted in vain to root out the source of the vile rumors.

Loholt was given an opportunity to redeem his good name at Yuletide. His great courtly love, Lady Orlande, had made it known that she wished for Loholt to compose one of his famous poems - and not only to dedicate it to her, but also recite it to her before the assembled court! In order to do this while maintaining both his own and Lady Orlande's good names, Loholt arrived at court on a frosty winter afternoon in the guise of a traveling minstrel. His disguise was so convincing that only Orlande recognized him, and she listened enraptured as he recited his verse:
O Queen, that art so high
Purple and gold thou passest by,
With these poor flowers thy lover worships thee.
Though all thy wealth thou hast flung from thee,
Wilt thou not hold
The violet's purple and the crocus' gold? 
Take this poor offering,
For it thy thoughts shall bring
To that blest light that is to dawn for thee,
Fields bright as these,
And richer fragrances. 
And when thou comest there,
Hear, O my Saint, my prayer,
And may thy kind hand draw me after thee.
Yet, though thine eyes
Already look on flowers of Paradise, 
These thine own flowers
Would have thee out of doors.
Yea, though the flowers of Paradise are sweet,
These fain would lie
Where thou wert passing by.
The court sat momentarily stunned by the immortal beauty of Loholt's poetry, then burst into applause. Even Sir Gondrins, Orlande's husband, was seen to wipe a tear from his eye as Loholt took his bows.

As the new year got under way, news from Camelot came to Sarum. Arthur had declared the pursuit of Adventure to be superior to the pursuit of Romance, but Romance superior to sloth and that, accordingly, all knights not on Adventure would be required to attend the Court of Love that summer. In response, most of Salisbury's knights began making plans to go on adventure! Many intended to go off to the Peningues Tournament, supposed to be the biggest of the year.

Loholt, however, was still intent on heading back to Cornwall. The memory of that strange ritual out on the moors in which a maiden was sacrificed on a maypole of briars continued to haunt him. Fortuitously, he had also heard of a tournament in Cornwall; King Mark was getting married, having given up on Romance. His was to be a political marriage to the daughter of King Anguish of Ireland as an effort to settle hostilities between the two countries. And so, with the coming of spring in April, Loholt and his squire made west for the moors of Cornwall.

Soon after leaving Devon, riding along a trade road that stretched across the rolling countryside, Loholt spotted two knights riding at full gallop, one pursuing the other, coming up the trail in his direction. The lead knight sported unfamiliar arms, but, as he drew near, he shouted out, "Help me! Sir Breuse sans Pitie is on my tail!"

Loholt drew his sword as the lead knight tore past. With a battle cry, Loholt charged the pursuing knight, who had his sword out as well. "Die varlet!" yelled the pursuing knight. Swords clashed and Loholt took a hard hit and was knocked off his horse. Adtherp charged off to recover Firebrand, Loholt's charger. Loholt, meanwhile, got painfully to his feet as the pursuing knight trotted up, his sword bared. "Yield!" Only now did Loholt recognize the arms of Sir Tristram. With a sickening realization, he understood that he had been duped - the other knight must have been Sir Breuse!

"Apologies, sir!" said Loholt. "I mistook you for a different knight."

Tristram still held his sword bared, a foot from Loholt's face. "Yield, Sir Breuse, I tell you!"

"I am not Sir Breuse!" Loholt yelled back.

Tristram pulled his helmet off, squinting. "Ah. So you are not. That dastard!" He punched the air in frustration.

"Let's go after him!" Loholt suggested as Adtherp returned leading Firebrand.

"Ah, I was just seeing him off my lord's lands. I have a prior...engagement to attend to."

"Is it the wedding of King Mark?"

"Indeed! People are coming from across the land! And well should they. The Lady Isolt's beauty far surpasses that of any other in these Isles."

"Then I shall ride with you, for the wedding is where I am bound as well," said Loholt, taking his saddle again.

Loholt and Tristram rode on to Dore Castle in Dartmoor under increasingly cloudy skies that seemed to match Tristram's disposition. Loholt attempted to cheer him up but Tristram's moodiness could not be penetrated.

Arriving at Dore Castle, Loholt found that, true to Tristram's words, knights from across the lands were pitching tents in the grounds around the castle. Loholt set up his tent between two knights of Wuerensis; he recognized the arms of Sir Madog, a famous knight of that county married to the fair Lady Enid, who was also present. Loholt popped by to introduce himself, noting the knight's massive frame. Sitting and playing chess with Madog was one Sir Blaine, resident of the other Wuerensis tent. His melancholy mood seemed to rival that of Tristram's, Loholt thought. Later, Loholt would discover Sir Blaine's wife had left him the year before and that his son had not survived the winter.

The knights all bonded over chess and ale, leavened by plenty of complaining about how backwater Cornwall was - particularly the fact that the tournament would apparently only feature a melee and no joust! As they got further into their cups, they made some idle speculation about going giant hunting. They also talked about the possibility of doing a jousting demonstration for the locals. Sir Madog and Sir Blaine spoke of their exploits: freeing a giant unjustly imprisoned, killing a hippogriff, and so on. They had even formed a local brotherhood of knights called the Order of the Chain.

As the sun began to set, Blaine disappeared, a local maiden on his arm. Madog and Loholt wandered the grounds, noting the fire jugglers, minstrels, and animal fights that were being put on to amuse the milling crowds. Rumors were circulating about a lion being brought out to fight all comers. Loholt kept an eye out for Tristram but didn't see him.

At last, the knights stopped by the herald's table to register for the melee. Sir Madog found that his reputation had preceded him and that he had already accrued challenges from two local knights: Sir Caradoc and Sir Samson. Despite the old-fashioned nature of the tournament, Loholt and Madog began to look forward to some fun in the days to come.

The wedding was to come first, of course. Mid-morning found all the assembled knights, dressed in their finest courtly garb, filing up into the bailey of Dore Castle. Loholt finally spotted Tristram, who had been up in the castle all night helping Mark prepare for his nuptials. He looked miserable and aggrieved.

A great hush fell over the assembly as Lady Isolt emerged from the tower keep. The tales of her great beauty proved insufficient to convey her true nature. She was beautiful, yes, but also quite proper, demure, and obedient in her bearing. Mark was clearly ecstatic and could barely take his eyes off her as she made her way to the steps of the castle church.

"I can see why Tristram is so glum," said Blaine.

"Aye. She is a great prize for any man," agreed Loholt, reflecting that she almost equalled the beauty of his own beloved. "Perhaps he desired her at one time."

Mark and Isolt were married under a white sheet at the steps of the church, and then as many as could crammed into the chapel for Mass. The remainder, including Loholt and his companions, lingered in the courtyard. They watched as trestle tables were brought out for a grand feast in the bailey. When the Mass at last ended and the royal party took their seats at the high table, Loholt and his companions were seated with the foreign delegation, which was large enough to take up two tables.

Loholt's feast proved uneventful; he supped on excellent fare and enjoyed good company. Madog, much to his wife's consternation, got drunk and started talking about how good he was at falconry [even though his Falconry is only 3]. His boasts were rewarded with the chance to be the falconmaster and lead King Mark's party. Sir Blaine attempted to join in on some May Pole dancing with 11 other knights and ladies but managed to tangle up his ribbon and was asked to leave.

As Loholt watched Blaine's debacle, he was put in mind of his original mission. With a jolt, he realized May Day was only a week away!

At the high table, Mark got thoroughly wasted and departed halfway through the feast with Isolt and his entourage, sent away with cheers from the revelers. Loholt again looked around for Tristram and noted that he was again nowhere to be seen.

As the feast and festivities wound down, Loholt found his spirits moody as he contemplated the great task before him. What evil lay behind the maypole sacrifices? He contemplated asking the two Wuerensis knights to accompany him, but decided to wait and see how they performed in the tournament.

The first day of the tournament brought more animal fights to entertain the commoners and challenges for the knights. Sir Madog was tapped to fight his two challengers, Caradoc and Samson.

Sir Caradoc was up first, early in the morning when the dew still clung to the grass. His terms were a fight on foot with sword and shield to first blood. With his wife Lady Enid in the stands, Madog was inspired by his great love. Meanwhile, Caradoc saluted Mark; "I do this for my lord and liege!" he shouted, and he was also inspired to greatness. The knights saluted each other, and then, with startling swiftness, Madog moved in and hewed Caradoc's shield in twain, sending the Cornish knight reeling back, clutching a bleeding shield-arm. The contest was over scarcely after it had begun and Madog had shown once again why he was considered the best fighter in Wuerensis.

Other knights fought other challenges as the morning wore on. Near noon, Madog was summoned to the field again, this time to fight Sir Samson. This challenger had issued terms of a single pass of the lance, followed by combat afoot with weapon of choice if neither knight were unhorsed. As Madog took his saddle, he noted Samson wearing the token of a mystery woman in the form of a lady's scarf tied around his arm. Sir Samson's eagerness to prove his devotion to his secret admirer was clear with the first exchange of lance blows - Sir Madog took a solid hit and felt himself slipping from his horse. For one long second, he thought he'd be able to hold on, but then he lost his hold and fell to the ground. As Sir Samson took a victory lap, shouting "Cornwall!", Sir Madog left the field with a record of one win and one loss. Lady Enid was waiting to console him, brushing grass from his armor and speaking words of conciliation.

Loholt and Blaine had watched both contests from the sidelines. As Blaine watched Samson raising his lance high in the name of Cornwall, he snapped. Marching out onto the field, he threw down his chain gauntlet at Samson's feet as the Cornish knight reined his horse to a stop. For good measure, Blaine thumbed his nose at Samson, making it apparent to all what the young knight from Wuerensis thought of all this "Cornwall" business. King Mark, amused by this development, asked Samson if he was ready on the spot to accept this new challenge.

"Of course, my liege!"

Blaine, as challenger, was free to set terms, but he kept the same terms Madog had fought under. After mounting up, he and Samson exchanged a pass of the lance. Blaine was hit by Samson's crushing battering ram of a lance, but he just barely managed to hang on. Dismounting, he chose spear and shield as his weapon. Samson, for his part, took a flail and shield. The two knights squared off and Blaine felt a swelling determination to avenge Madog's defeat, inspired by his Loyalty to the group.

Unfortunately, Blaine's inspiration did not prove sufficient to defuse Samson's might. After exchanging tentative blows, Samson came on hard and brought his flail upside Blaine's head, crushing his helmet against his skull. Blaine hit the ground and lay still. It took his squire some minutes to bring him back around, and in the end it took the combined efforts of Loholt and Madog to get Blaine off the field and back to his tent, Samson's jeers echoing in their ears the whole time.

As Loholt watched Blaine's head wound getting bandaged, he made up his mind. He wanted to take help along on his quest, and he had seen both Blaine and Madog fight bravely against extremely capable foes. Sir Samson might have been a mightier warrior, but his attitude left much to be desired.

As Blaine came around at last, Loholt pulled up a camp stool and told the Wuerensis knights about his quest.

"There is a village in Exmoor that, every Mayday, sacrifices a young maiden upon a maypole of briars. I know that the year before last a band of knights from Logres rode hither to end the foul practice, but they were killed by a giant named Bolster before they could complete the quest. Only one of their squires survived to tell the tale, and he spoke of a strange wailing cry that preceded the arrival of Bolster. An old crone told me the wail was most likely the Hag of Warning, whose keening always heralds imminent death. I swore to the squire that I would avenge his lord's death and complete his good work, and that is the real reason I have come to Cornwall.

"Clearly, this is not a mission lightly undertaken. I would ask you two brave knights if you would ride with me on this adventure, even though I do not know what obstacles lie in my way."

The two knights immediately agreed and an oath was sworn to not disband until the sacrifices were ended.

But before they could depart Dore Castle, Madog was still obliged to lead the royal falconing party. The time was set for late afternoon; the quarry was to be grouse. Blaine was still recovering from his head wound, but Loholt agreed to come along. On the way out to the fields, the party came upon Sir Tristram, apparently out for a solitary ride. Strangely, he did not seem to realize who he had encountered until he heard King Mark's voice. Squinting, he saw the falcons riding hooded upon the arms of lords and ladies. "Ah, a falcon hunt!" he proclaimed excitedly.

Amazingly, Madog was able to acquit himself ably during the hunt and managed to not embarrass himself terribly. Relieved to have the falcon hunt behind them, the trio of knights began to plan their trip into the interior of Cornwall. With a week to go until May Day, time was of the essence. Unfortunately, Sir Blaine was still down with his head wound, and so the knights were obliged to wait several days before he could sit a horse. Even with the press of time hanging over them, Loholt elected to ride for Mother Yarrow's cottage first - perhaps there were some healing poultices she could provide that would speed Blaine's recovery.

The ride to Yarrow's cottage on the Exe River was brief and uneventful. The old crone happily took Blaine inside to tend his wounds, and Loholt took Madog on a tour of the old woman's garden.

"They say every color of rose symbolizes a different aspect of romance," said Madog, studying Mother Yarrow's many immaculate rose bushes. "But I know not their meaning." He plucked an amethyst rose and turned inquiringly to Loholt.

"That color represents faithfulness," said Loholt, who was well-versed in rose lore thanks to the lessons administered by his Persian manservant over the winter. Loholt picked a moss rose for himself. "Shy love bestowed from afar," he told Madog, thinking of his love for Orlande.

"Will this rose wither before I can take it back to my garden?" asked Madog.

"No! Mother Yarrow's roses are special." Loholt explained: "Mother Yarrow says it's due to her well - the water she draws from it has special healing properties that give her roses vitality and long lives. This is one of very few healing wells in all of Britain."

Mother Yarrow's well water was also responsible for her efficacious healing salves and broths, and Blaine was feeling much refreshed by sunrise the next morning. Before the group mounted up to make for Padstow, the town that was the site of the May Day sacrifices, they asked Mother Yarrow to tell them all she knew of the place. She couldn't provide much information: the lord was named Sir Garrowin and he had a castle near the Morris Forest; she knew not the reason for the gruesome ceremony, only that it had started about a decade ago.

Having lost much time with detours, the group arrived at Padstow on May Day itself. The town was swamped with all the farmers and yeomen from the surrounding countryside, everyone looking joyful and happy with anticipation. The group rode along behind a haywain filled with dirty-footed children who laughed and giggled, pulling faces at the stoic knights; young maidens on their geldings gave the knights eager glances as they rode past. Clearly spring was in the air.

Padstow proved to be a modest-sized market town centered around a blue stone chapel, its bells pealing. Laughter and singing dominated the town square, which was awash with the smells of braising meats and baked goods. With Loholt in the lead, the knights looked about for the sinister maypole or else some sort of authority figure. Neither was readily in evidence.

Loholt approached a group sitting near the church and asked about May Day festivities, particularly about maypoles. As soon as the word "maypole" left his lips, though, the group of revelers became very sullen and avoided his gaze.

"I asked a question!" Loholt bellowed. Madog and Blaine backed him up: "Where's the maypole? We know about this blood ceremony! When is it happening?"

"I'm sure we don't know what you're talking about," someone murmured. The crowd began to disperse. Loholt jumped off his horse, grabbing one of them by the collar.

"You must tell me!"

"My lord! I meant no offense!" The townsman quivered with fear. "G-go to Sir Garrowin's castle - ride in that direction, towards the Morris Forest!" He ran off as soon as Loholt slackened his grip.

The knights remounted and rode off, scattering a wedding party that was just leaving the church. Soon they were free of the thronging crowds and beyond Padstow's limits. Off in the distance, they could see the Morris Forest stretching along the horizon. Following a well-traveled path south of town, in due time Loholt spotted the castle: a square keep with a round bailey wall but no ditch or moat. It was built hard up against the boundaries of the forest. Blaine and Madog's gazes were drawn to the woods, which was composed mostly of great oaks. Oddly, a wall of thorny vines seemed to climb between the roots and branches of the trees, completely sealing the forest from any who would enter.

The group rode on, approaching the castle gate. As they did so, they spotted a maypole erected about halfway between the castle and forest. Tied to the pole by limp, black ribbon was a young maiden, also dressed in black. She was encircled by thorny vines that stretched from the castle walls. The vines' long thorns pierced her skin, causing rivulets of blood to run into the earth at the base of the pole. She was attended by an older couple, commoners by their appearance, who sat weeping. The knights rode off the trail and approached the maypole, swords drawn.

Riding right up to the pole, the knights hacked at the vines encircling the damsel. Unfortunately, as soon as the blades hit, the vines tightened and the thorns sank in further into the maiden's delicate flesh, increasing the blood flow and causing her to scream in pain. Sheathing his sword, Madog tried to pull the vines off by hand, but this only caused further constriction.

"What sorcery is this?" cursed Blaine.

By this point, the older couple had jumped up, alarmed. "No, my lords!"

Blaine then spotted a knight atop the bailey wall, watching all this unfold. He pointed him out to his companions: "There! Up on the wall."

"Pox scarred," muttered Loholt, squinting up at knight's face.

"No!" said Madog. "Those are briars growing out of his cheeks!" The three knights exchanged looks of revulsion.

"You down there! What are you doing?" called the Briar Knight.

"Trying to free this maiden!" Loholt replied.

"By what right?"

"By the right that this is a barbaric ritual that has no place in a civilized realm such as this!"

"We're knights. We free maidens. That's what we do," muttered Madog for good measure.

"I make no apologies for her predicament or for the custom. You would do best to ride away," came the reply from atop the wall.

"We shall do no such thing. I challenge you for the right to free this maiden!" said Loholt, incensed.

The Briar Knight disappeared from atop the wall, then emerged from his gate, striding out in black armor. Everyone could now clearly see his strange facial disfigurement.

"I, Sir Garrowin, lord of these lands, accept your challenge," said the Briar Knight, standing about ten feet away and eyeing the three knights contemptuously. "But on the following condition: if you are defeated, you must renounce the order of knighthood for one year, from this May Day to the next. Furthermore, I will restore your knighthood to you, one year hence, by my own hand, but only upon the presentation of a maiden who shall be tied to this maypole. If I am defeated, I agree to free the girl from the pole and allow the thorn barrier to die."

"I--" said Loholt - but no sooner had he opened his mouth than mournful wailing fills the air. Garrowin's face turned pale at the sound of the keening. The cry sent chills up everyone's spine and threatened to break their hearts, so great was its sadness. All the knights present understood that this was the wail of the Hag of Warning; but they also understood, hearing it now in person, that it was not a wail that portended of death, but rather one that cried over a wrong in need of righting.

The maiden's father approached the knights as the wailing faded away. "I know you meant well, trying to free my daughter, but you should know that Sir Garrowin loved the wife of a knight named Sir Warren Daye, and a prophet foretold that Sir Garrowin could only be slain by Daye's vengeance, so Sir Garrowin imprisoned him within the forest."

Loholt turned to face Sir Garrowin, who was finally regaining his composure.

"Do you accept the terms of the challenge?" asked Garrowin, assuming his arrogant manner anew.

"On the condition that I find a champion to fight on my behalf," said Loholt. Garrowin's eyes narrowed, but he smirked. "Good luck," he said ruefully. "If your champion is defeated, both he and you are bound by my terms."

"So be it," said Loholt, the steely gaze he had inherited from his grandfather unwavering.

As Garrowin returned to his castle, the group approached the forest border, guided by the maiden's father, who identified himself as a woodsman. Noting that the vines here looked different from those encircling the maiden, they decided to try hacking their way in.

The vines twisted and moved, effectively fighting back, their thorns the size of spearheads. Loholt and Madog were both impaled badly, although not enough to cause a Major Wound. "Tch," observed the woodsman. "What mortal man can cut his way through such an obstacle? These vines are not of the natural world."

The group stood defeated, at a loss for what to do. "Sir Warren Daye? Are you in there?" called Blaine, desperate. No response came.

The group was stumped. Loholt, in desperation, thought of something Mother Yarrow told him the previous year: the healing waters of her well were fed by a river that led to the kingdom of the Queen of Spring.

"Perhaps if these are vines from the Other Side, we need the help of one of the Good Folk?" Loholt mused, without much conviction. Upon considering and discarding several other options, the group agreed that this was their best chance, even though Mother Yarrow's cottage lay over a day's hard ride away. Regretfully leaving the maiden tied to the maypole, hoping she could hold out another 24 hours, they set off at once.

They arrived at Mother Yarrow's cottage well after sundown. Mother Yarrow welcomed them in and sat them down next to her hearth, tending a bubbling pot of stew.

"Are you the Queen of Spring?" asked Blaine bluntly.

"Me? Heavens, no!" Mother Yarrow laughed a cracked laugh. "No. She is called Bona Dea and lives in a kingdom far away, yet very near."

"Is it possible to descend into the well?" asked Blaine.

"I imagine others have done so--there are ancient footholds carved into the sides. I've never done it, though."

The knights left their squires and horses behind. Looking down into the inky blackness of the well, they heard a burbling sound coming up from below. A sense of supernatural dread settled on them, but they all shook it off and descended into the darkness of the well, feeling their way from handhold to foothold. Despite their armor and weapons weighing them down, everyone managed to make it to the bottom safely.

At the bottom was a clear, sparkling stream flowing through a low-ceilinged cavern lit by a sort of ambient light that seemed to emanate from the walls. The current of the stream was neither deep nor strong, so the knights made their way along the pebbly bed. The light grew stronger, as if a veil was being lifted. A heady aroma of flowers filled the air, and quite suddenly the knights found themselves standing in full daylight in a wide clearing bordered by hedges. At the far end of the clearing was an arched gateway entwined by all kinds of roses. Passing through the gate, the knights entered a maze-like rose bower. A woman of disturbing beauty was tending the flowers, dressed in a satin gown and copiously draped with rose garlands. She gave the knights a warm-cold smile.

"Welcome, sirs. For what reason do you come to the garden of Bona Dea?"

Loholt was first to speak. "We come to ask a favor of the Queen of Spring."

"And what might that be?"

"The Morris Forest is encircled by thick, thorny vines. We would ask you to dispel this wall of thorns before they harm anyone further."

Bona Dea laughed a musical laugh. "Those vines are not of my doing. They are work of Sir Garrowin, who stole a black rose from my garden," she said, her eyes narrowing. "For that, I cursed him. The thorns that grow from his flesh are of my making; however, I have no power over the thorns he has summoned with the power of the rose.

"He, like yourselves, entered my garden through Madron's Well, bringing a set of magical shears he had stolen from the giant Bolster. He used these shears to cut the black rose, and must have combined the magic of the shears with the magic of the thorns on his face. Though I cannot dispel them, I can help you pass through the vines that encircle the forest. But I require both word and deed from you."

"Name it," said Loholt.

"The word I require is that you vow to return the rose stolen by Sir Garrowin to my garden. My second request," she said, straightening up, "is that you compare me to a rose and give a reason for your choice."

Fortunately, all three knights were great lovers as well, and each was able to draw on Passions for the women in their lives to fuel appropriately flattering comparisons. With each such comparison, the Queen smiled more broadly. "Very well," she said. "Follow me."

She led the knights out of the bower and into a rose garden where young rose bushes were growing. Many were held up, tied to crossed wooden stakes. "These stakes are the Sword of the Rose. They will enable you to cut your way through the vines and enter the forest. Make your selections well, though. Their strength comes not from skill at arms but from the heart of the wielder. They are yours from now until the return of the stolen rose."

Madog chose a stake tied to an amethyst rose, while Loholt chose a moss rose. Blaine hesitated, his broken heart clouding his judgment. In the end, he chose a red rose. The stakes were pulled from the ground, at which point they transformed into steel swords with the seal of the appropriately-colored rose embossed on the hilt.

The knights hurried out of Bona Dea's bower and returned to the surface world. Upon returning, Blaine looked more haggard than when he descended, having magically aged a year. They quickly mounted up and rode through the night straight back to Padstow, everyone proving sufficiently Energetic to make the journey. The horses were likewise refreshed, having drunk Mother Yarrow's well water. Before they left, Blaine filled his skin with water from the well.

As the sky lightened with dawn, the knights arrived at the maypole outside the forest. The girl was still alive, but only barely. The ground around her was soaked with blood. Blaine gave her the healing water from Mother Yarrow's well and some color returned to her face, but she still looked very weak. Having tended to the girl, the knights then came to the edge of the forest. Their Rose Swords sliced through the vines with ease, the thorns almost giving way before the magical blades.

The group quickly picked up a trail, but it still took some hours to follow, and it took them deep into the heart of the forest. Finally, in a glade, the group found a thin, filth-ridden man roasting a mangy rabbit over the dull remains of a fire. He seemed completely unaware of the knights' presence. His head was bowed and he seemed wholly focused on a black rose sitting in his lap.

"Sir Warren Daye?" asked Blaine. He didn't respond, but the group noted he was dressed in rusted armor. Clearly this man was once a knight. Madog slowly approached. "May I look at your wounds, sir?" he asked. As Madog leaned in, the mangy knight came alive, suddenly lashing out with a dagger. Then he returned to staring at the rose, which was looking decidedly withered.

Blaine approached this time, leaning in and carefully pouring some more of Mother Yarrow's well water on the rose, which revived and bloomed. "Are you Sir Warren Daye?" asked Blaine again. The knight looked up, blinking from beneath matted hair and wild beard.

"Aye," he said with a voice cracking from lack of use.

"Here, drink this," said Blaine, handing the filthy knight the last of the well water. Sir Warren Daye drank greedily, and his eyes began to clear.

"Am I looking at other knights? Who are you? What are you doing here?"

"We have come to free you from your prison, so you may avenge yourself on Sir Garrowin and return the black rose to the Queen of Spring."

"Yes. Yes, that would be just. Perhaps that will return my bride to my side."

"Couldn't hurt!" said Loholt. "And I'll just hold that rose for you."

"Gladly! I will happily rid myself of this cursed bloom. It is the rose that Sir Garrowin used to steal away my love. I must prepare myself for battle with Sir Garrowin the Fiend."

"Time is of the essence," said Loholt. "We must hurry - a young lady's life is on the line!"

As the knights made their way out of the forest, it became obvious that Sir Warren Daye was weak from starvation and malnutrition. The three knights exchanged worried looks. He did not look fit to fight. The knights quietly conferred, but didn't see any other options. In the end, they elected to put their faith in the hope that some sort of divine justice would take the day.

The sun was high in the sky when the party of knights emerged from the Morris Forest. Sir Garrowin, having seen the party approaching, emerged from the castle.

"Ah, you have returned. And have you brought a beggar as your champion?" The knights smirked knowingly as Sir Warren Daye stepped forth.

"Garrowin! It is I, Sir Warren Daye! You shall fall beneath my blade!"

Garrowin looked shocked at first, but quickly recovered. "Let us join in battle, then."

What then transpired was a farce of a combat, as Sir Garrowin quickly defeated and killed Sir Warren Daye! The trio of knights were no longer smirking.

Garrowin stood over the body, breathing heavily with excitement. "I did it! I killed him!"

"You killed a tired old man. Where's the glory in that?" asked Loholt.

"I care not for glory, only power."

"Honorless cur!" shouted Blaine. With a single, quick exchange of looks, the knights silently agreed that they were facing a man bereft of honor, and as such they were not bound by rules of chivalry. And so they all charged in at once, waving their Rose Swords. Seeing the magical blades, Garrowin realized who had sent the knights and passionate hatred filled his heart.

The knights rained down blows upon Garrowin, including two blows that should have proven mortal, but Garrowin was barely wounded - his partial plate armor accounted for most of his protection, but his thorny skin seemed to offer some additional toughness as well. Finally, a powerful blow from the mighty Madog knocked Garrowin to the ground, where he stirred no more. The vine barrier around the forest began to wither as soon as Garrowin went down.

Sparing no more time for Garrowin, the knights ran to the maypole. Here, too, the vines were withering. Using their magical swords, they cut away the vines and pulled the damsel from the pole. She was still alive but unconscious and extremely pale. The knights prepared to take her to Mother Yarrow. A short debate ensued as to whether or not to leave Garrowin to bleed to death or to put him out of his misery; in the end, everyone decided to leave him to die a slow and painful death. Blaine also took the body of Sir Warren Daye, hoisting him over the pommel of his sumpter, until they might find a proper burial site.

Slowed by the comatose maiden, it took the knights three days to travel back to Mother Yarrow's cottage. Once there, the old crone promised to take good care of the damsel and see to Sir Warren Daye's burial. The party ventured back down the well and presented the black rose to Bona Dea, who gave them her icy-warm smile. She said that the reward for bringing back the black rose was that they may each take a rose of their choosing from her garden to present to their amor.

"How are your roses different from those of Mother Yarrow's garden above, my lady?" asked Loholt.

Bona Dea took the black rose in the palm of her hand and gently blew on it. A tiny tableau seemed to emerge from the rose like a fragrant cloud. The knights watched as Sir Garrowin gave the black rose to Sir Warren Daye's bride, who fell immediately in love with Garrowin, forsaking Daye, as soon as she smelled its fragrance.

"This is the magic of the black rose, which ensorcels with a consuming love. The Lady Eliza was so consumed that Sir Garrowin could no longer abide it." Again the tableau presented itself and the knights listened as Sir Garrowin told Lady Eliza, "If you really loved me, you would slit your veins and let the blood flow forth to prove it." The scene shifted and the knights could see that Lady Eliza did so, dying. It was clear that the symbolic powers ascribed to the different roses were real powers when it came to the roses of the Queen of Spring. "The wail of the Hag of Warning is the wail of the Lady Eliza, lamenting her cruel death," said Bona Dea with a trace of an ironic smile.

Shuddering, Madog picked the amethyst rose, the better to inspire faithfulness and fidelity, to give his wife. Loholt picked the red rose: love purified by suffering, overcoming all obstacles. Blaine, his heart still broken for the wife who left him, politely declined a rose.

And so the trio departed Mother Yarrow's cottage. They rode to Exter, where they picked up the King's Road. In due course, Loholt took his leave of his friends from Wuerensis and journeyed on to Camelot with a tale to tell. Weeks passed in the great city and Loholt spent much of his time in the company of Sir Gawaine and the aging Sir Griflet. There was much talk of Romance. Loholt, it seemed, had attained the status of one of the paragons of the movement, whereas Gawaine came from a more old school approach, advocating for lusty adventures with a variety of women: "I'm not playing a courtly game, it's for real!"

"Focusing on one woman allows you to hone your skills in the ways of the heart," said Loholt during a typical evening's debate at Gawaine's townhouse. "Quantity does not make up for this - it's not all about 'going in'." Griflet guffawed at this. "It's all to please the ladies, at any rate."

"But I think the point you're missing is--" Suddenly, there was a great commotion audible from outside in the street. A dozen people were out in the avenue, pointing up at the dusky sky. The shout of "Dragon!" was raised here and there. Loholt scanned the sky, his eyes alighting upon a great tongue of brilliant red flame hovering up in the heavens, stationary. Speculation was running rampant as to what the flame might be. A wizened, learned old man sidled up to Loholt. "Worry not, young knight. 'Tis nothing but an alchemical trick. I'm quite sure it's just a wizard-giant in Iceland boiling mercury, and that's having an affect on the atmosphere."

"Hm," said Loholt, not sure what to believe.

"Well, if it is a red dragon, it is simply an apparition of our king Pendragon's great banner, " said Griflet, eliciting a chorus of cheers from several bystanders.

[And eliciting a round of Arrested Development jokes from us: "Look at banner, Arthur!" "'Kingdom love Arthur'."]

"Gawaine, you've seen many things," said Loholt. "What say you about this apparition?"

"I think back to what my mother used to say about these sorts of signs; they generally portend either a great birth or begetting, or a great death," replied Gawaine, stroking his rich beard. Of all the theories being thrown around among the startled and worried populace, this seemed the most credible to Loholt.

Winter came to Camelot in due course. Conversation around the hearth fires continued to touch on the "Red Dragon" in the sky; word had it that Arthur had ordered that his personal banner and the old red legionary dragon banners be borne around the country come the spring as a message of reassurance to the populace. The main conversation, however, centered on gossip regarding the Peningues Tournament that Loholt missed due to his trip to Cornwall.

Apparently it was quite an affair, a very grand spectacle. Many Round Table knights were in attendance, yet young Sir Mordred of Lothian swept them all from the field. Remarkable enough in and of itself, but Mordred reportedly fought like a man possessed, fighting on even after his shield was battered, and that at one point he even tore his helmet off, throwing it another knight! Yet the glorious victory did not seem to please him in any way, and even his brothers were unable to get close to him and inquire why he brooded so. He was seemingly afflicted with a great melancholy.

Loholt, for his part, spent the winter contemplating his rose from the Queen of Spring's garden. Just as Bona Dea had promised, the rose had remained fresh and fragrant, its deep crimson petals losing none of their luster. He desired very much to give the rose to Lady Orlande as soon as he could. He was curious to see what effect it would have on her. Perhaps he would make a special trip to Sarum for the Yuletide festivities again this year...
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