Tuesday, November 27, 2012

[Solo GPC] 535: Heavy Weighs the Crown

Because we started Loholt out as a wet-behind-the-ears squire, I sometimes forget how young he is. I've been waiting to see him come into his own; this was the year, as it turned out. And in true Pendragon fashion, it came about in a way neither one of us saw coming.

The year got off to an odd start. At Camelot, a common woman appeared with a young boy of no more than three winters' age in tow. She claimed the child was sired by Sir Loholt during a tryst in the midst of King Today's visit. The little boy's brilliant red hair certainly seemed to attest to some shared heritage, and Loholt decided that the honest and just thing to do would be to acknowledge his parentage and promise to provide for the woman and their son, just as his own father had done. Arrangements were made to send the two away to Loholt's manor in Ireland come the spring.

This was not the end of Loholt's familial dealings that winter, however. On a sunny but chill morning, he was summoned to a minor hall in the Keep of Gold to appear before King Arthur himself.

"What does my liege desire of me?" asked Loholt, kneeling before the High King.

"In light of your exemplary service in escorting Lady Elyzabel to Paris last year and the connections you established there, we have determined to send two messengers to France in order to arrange a betrothal between you and a lady of the French king's court."

Loholt bowed his head in acquiescence. "Whatever you would have me do, father." The last word hung awkwardly in the air. "Er, your majesty," Loholt corrected, but too late. He chanced a glance up at Arthur and saw the king's face twitching slightly in annoyance. Loholt quickly left the hall, castigating himself for the slip of the tongue.

As winter came to a close, worse news came to Loholt: he received word that the ship bearing his bastard son to Ireland had sunk in a storm! Loholt was despairing over the news, left feeling like he had nothing. His father was distant. His son was dead. His great love, Orlande, was far away and had not been heard from in months. Loholt determined to seek her out and give her the magic red rose from Bona Dea's garden. Gathering his horses and squire, he departed for Sarum as the first buds of spring began to appear.

Loholt arrived at Sarum and presented himself before Earl Robert. Quickly, he sought out Orlande and soon found her in the company of her husband, Sir Gondrins. But there was a shock in store for Loholt, for he found Orlande to be heavy with child. This only increased Loholt's anxiousness to present her with the rose.

Through the elderly Lady Gwiona, an old family friend, Loholt arranged to be shown to Orlande's solarium in the south wing of the castle. Although a guard was posted outside the door and Orlande's handmaidens were present, Loholt knew that this was about as private an audience as he could hope for. Ushered into the solarium, he felt light-headed to finally be in the presence of his beloved in such an intimate chamber. A fire crackled in a small fireplace and scented candles burned, giving the air a heady aroma. Orlande's maidens whispered excitedly to one another, but the lady herself remained composed, standing stately by a large, paned window, framed in sunlight.

"My lady, I have traveled beyond our own world to fetch this, a token of my feelings," said Loholt, kneeling before Orlande and presenting the rose. His heart was pounding like a drum as Orlande reached for the rose. She very conscientiously allowed her hand to brush Loholt's and an electric shock ran through his body at her touch.

Orlande took the rose, smiling slightly. Loholt watched expectantly. The lady and knight met each others' gaze and sound seemed to dim for a moment. Then Orlande lifted the rose to her nose and inhaled the fragrance deeply. She closed her eyes.

Opening her eyes, she looked again at Loholt. "True romance is only won through tribulation," she said. "I have heard of your great exploits with ending the sacrifices of the Rosebriar Knight. Now I wish for you to perform an equally great deed in my name."

"You have to but name it, my lady," said Loholt.

"I have heard tell of the Circle of Gold. I wish for you to retrieve it and give it to me."

"I will attempt this feat and if I fail you will never see me again." Loholt knew that this was a dangerous promise to make, for no knight had successfully attained the quest in 40 years. He dismissed himself from Orlande's chamber, knowing that there was much work to be done before he would feel ready to undertake the quest.

It was not until May that Loholt set out from Sarum, once again riding west to Cornwall. On his way to the Kingdom of the Circle of Gold, he stopped off at Padstow, the town he had freed from the evil rule of Sir Garrowin. The townsfolk were overjoyed to welcome back one of their liberators. They told him that Garrowin's castle had already begun to fall into ruin, but that they were happy to live without a lord and that the last year had treated them well.

"Can you show me where Sir Garrowin was buried?" asked Loholt, curiously.

"We left his body out for the sport of crows and carrion birds."

"I see," said Loholt, feeling uneasy. After three days of being feted in Padstow, Loholt departed, bound for his quest.

As Loholt made his way deeper into Cornwall, he came upon a knight traveling in the opposite direction. He bore no shield and no coat of arms, but carried a great drinking horn traced with gold accents.

"Good sir knight, where do you hail from?" asked Sir Loholt as he approached.

"Make way. I am on an important mission." The knight's voice was monotone and emotionless.

"Where are you bound?"

"For Camelot. I am to challenge the women of the court to drink from this horn."

"To what end?"

"My mistress commands it."

"Who is your mistress?

"I cannot say."

"Do you mean to harm them?"

"It will not harm any who have honor. Tell me, though - I see a fork in the road up ahead. Which will take me to Camelot?"

Loholt knew that the left fork would lead to Camelot. "I will not stand between a knight and his mission. Take the left fork, good sir." He rode on, reflecting that a knight's life was full of challenges and that ladies should be challenged as much as men. Even the Queen - especially the Queen! "She's the bastion. She will hold strong," Loholt told himself as he rode.

Loholt knew that the Kingdom of the Circle of Gold was located deep within the Morris Forest. He had visited the city before as a tourist in the company of Sir Palomides, who would go on to attempt the quest and fail. Trying not to think about the likelihood that he would suffer a similar fate, Loholt took the well-worn cart path that he knew would take him to his destiny.

The trees of the forest grew thick and densely packed. Loholt and his squire rode in single file as odd rustlings and cries were heard amongst the foliage. After what seemed like many hours of riding, the trees abruptly opened up and Loholt found himself looking down into a small, deep valley. At the far end stood a beautiful city set upon a hill, surrounded by rich farmlands. He could also make out a strong castle situated not far from the city. As his eye traced the unpaved road that descended from the castle into the valley, Loholt could make out many small farming villages, fields, pastures, and the silvery ribbon of a stream. Flocks of sheep grazed peacefully on the pastures.

Loholt's gaze drew up the near end of the valley and marked a group of knights riding his way. He waited patiently, then hailed them as they approached.

"Hail! We guard the boundaries of the Kingdom of the Circle of Gold. What has brought you to our land?"

"I have come here to meet the challenge of the Circle of Gold."

"Very well, then. Ride on and you shall encounter obstacles along the way. Those who overcome these obstacles are allowed to venture for the circle itself."

Nodding, Loholt spurred his horse on and followed the trail as it wound its way down into the valley. Evening was gathering as Loholt rode into a wide glen, alive with wildflowers. In the center of the glen stood an elegant marble fountain, marking the boundary of a mowed field where several small tents had been erected. Loholt was reminded of a military encampment. He noted knights and squires milling about, and one who was already mounted. He also spotted a rider departing the field at a gallop, heading deeper into the valley at Loholt's approach.

A squire dressed in homespun garb and riding a donkey approached Loholt. He was followed by two more squires on foot, each struggling to carry a bundle of jousting lances.

"May God bless you, sir," said the donkey squire. "My lord sends greetings and a challenge. None may pass this place without fighting my master for love." He then preceded to explain the conditions of the challenge: "Three combats must be undertaken here, sir knight. You will face the defender of the Circle of Gold. Should a single defender find himself unable to continue after a combat, the honor of defending our king and kingdom will be passed along to one of his fellows. The first is with jousting lances and shall continue until one knight or the other is unhorsed. The second two combats are to first blood and no further. The first of these is with sword on horseback. The second combat is on foot; you may use any weapon of your choosing in this encounter. The first to win two of these encounters will be declared the winner. Should you win here, sir knight, you will be permitted to continue on your adventure and will be given directions to continue onto your next encounter. Should you lose, your shield will be taken and hung upon a tree in the Orchard of the Shields of Shame for a year. You will have lost the challenge of the Circle of Gold and are forbidden from attempting it again until next summer. I stress again that these combats are for love, sir knight, and not for conquest. The victor may make no claim upon the arms or armor of the vanquished. Should you lose, only your shield shall be taken from you. These are the rules of the challenge."

"I accept them," said Loholt, grimly.

The defending knight took his position at the far end of the field. Loholt recognized the arms as being of the king of the Circle of Gold, indicating this was a household knight. The other knights assembled and looked on as Loholt and the defender readied their lances. Loholt's strength was steeled by thoughts of Orlande and what was at stake.

He spurred Firebrand forward and his lance connected with the defending knight. His Andalusian charger gave Loholt extra impetus and, as the lance shattered, the defending knight was knocked from his saddle.

Loholt waited as the defender was helped back to his saddle. As he waited, he brooded on what success in this venture would mean for his good name. It wasn't just Orlande who hung in the balance, it was his honor as well - he would rather die than see his shield hung in the orchard! With a battle cry, Loholt spurred Firebrand to a trot and engaged with the defending knight.

Loholt laid a crushing blow on the defending knight, sending him flying from the saddle with a splintered shield and broken collarbone. "Well done!" shouted some of the other knights. "Please, come and refresh yourself before you continue on."

Feeling a bit suspicious, Loholt dismounted and allowed himself to be ushered into one of the tents. Loholt noted that the other knights here were all fairly young. The knight Loholt had felled was their leader, Sir Dorgane, fourth son of Baron Varangis of the Castle of the Circle of Gold. Even now, an old wise woman named Colette was tending the young knight's wounds.

A simple meal of roasted beef and venison was presented before Loholt as his hosts explained that they were bivouacked here to "learn the hearty task of defending the kingdom."

"Well, that is a noble pursuit!" said Loholt.

"Indeed, but you, sir, are a famous knight! And we wish to hear tales of your adventures in the lands beyond..."

Loholt wanted to share some stories, but he was so focused on the task at hand that he had trouble coming up with anything interesting. Nonetheless, the young knights invited Sir Loholt to spend the night. Even Sir Dorgane, who had come around, was brought out on a litter to congratulate Loholt on his prowess.

"Tell me, though," Dorgane asked. "How does my wound look? Is it terribly hideous?"

Loholt examined the bandages and reassured Dorgane that Colette had done a good job with dressing the wound and that is should be healing soon. He also reassured Dorgane that he had been a worthy opponent.

"Well, I suppose none of us are unbeatable - except, perhaps, for Sir Lancelot," Dorgane mused. "Perhaps we will cross swords once again in the future. In the meantime, perhaps I can sing you a song of my own composition. I apologize - it is not quite finished, but would you like to hear what I have so far?"

"Please," said Loholt, taking a seat near the camp fire. Dorgane then sang a rather dull epic that told the story of his grandfather's conquest of the Seven Fiends who had once terrorized the valley. At the conclusion of the song, Dorgane motioned Loholt over.

"The Fiends may have been defeated, but know you that there are other dangers that lurk in this valley that are not part of the challenge. Be particularly wary of the Garden - it is a place of greater danger than it first appears."

"Based on my experiences last year with the Rosebriar Knight, I particularly appreciate and respect the power of enchanted vegetation. Thank you for the warning, sir!"

The remainder of the night passed uneventfully, and in the morning Loholt was off again. He reached a fork where the road split into a well-trafficked and a disused trail. Sensibly, Loholt took the well-trafficked trail and wound his way further down into the valley. The path returned again to the forest.

Around noon, Loholt heard a cry of distress followed immediately by a thud coming from a nearby thicket. He realized at once that whatever cried for help was not human. Steeling his nerves, Loholt dismounted and headed into the brush to find out what happened. Amid the bracken, Loholt found a deadfall trap that had been triggered. Pinned in the trap was a fat, ugly monster, squealing out cries for help that rang unpleasantly in Loholt's ears. The creature was ebon black with a yellowed pot belly and chest, spindly legs, and a scrawny neck supporting an oversized head with large ears. The creature's yellow eyes stared up at Loholt imploringly. He had no idea what kind of strange creature he had encountered, but he lifted the log nonetheless - and held a grip on one of the creature's legs as he did so.

The creature stared up not so much at Loholt's face, but at the coat of arms on his surcoat. "Thank you for freeing me, sir!" it squeaked.

"Who are you?" Loholt asked.

"I am but a simple traveler."

"Why are you traveling these woods?"

"My domain is not far from here. The house of my mother. But I warn you, do not take the left-hand track, for it is not a place for a man such as yourself!" the creature warned.

"Why not?" asked Loholt, guessing the answer.

"If you seek death, then you should go to my mother's house. Otherwise take the right-hand track and continue on in safety." Loholt released the creature's leg and it hopped up into a tree, then hopped away into the dim woods, bouncing from branch to branch, disappearing a lot faster than Loholt would have thought possible.

Loholt remounted his horse and rode on, soon reaching another fork in the road. He followed the creature's advice and took the right-hand path. In due time, he reached another clearing. This was much like the last: wildflowers grew in abundance and a small encampment stood on a mowed lawn. The tents here were more cheerfully colored, more like a tournament atmosphere than a military encampment. There were also many more ladies present than at the last camp, in addition to a number of knights.

Many upside-down shields could be seen hanging among the trees on the boundaries of the glen. "The Orchard of the Shields of Shame," Loholt muttered. Once again, he saw a squire riding towards him. This time, the lad was better-dressed and riding a stout cob. Again, the squire was followed by a pair of squires on foot, again struggling with a load of jousting lances.

"Good day and God's speed!" said the squire. "Be it known that none may pass this way without answering the challenge of my master." The squire then set out the same rules of combat that the previous squire had enumerated.

"I will accept these terms," said Loholt, feeling a distinct sense of deja vu. He flicked Firebrand's reigns and rode onto the lawn. There he was saluted by a mounted knight. Loholt saluted back, recognizing the knight's heraldry as that of a somewhat well-known knight called Sir Fitzroy, younger brother to the king of the Kingdom of the Circle of Gold and keeper of the Orchard of the Shields of Shame. Again, Loholt was impassioned by his love for Orlande and his by his honor. Again, Loholt's lance shattered on his opponent's shield, but this time he did not knock his opponent from his horse.

However, as Loholt wheeled his horse around, he saw his opponent dismounting and walking back to his tent, cradling his shield arm. Confused, Loholt watched as Sir Fitzroy's squire approached his lord and talked briefly with them. The squire then jogged over to Loholt. "My lord has yielded his place in the challenge, for he is dispirited that you were able to land such a telling blow against him when he was jousting in the name of his own lord. As per the rules, another knight will take my lord's place and you will be credited with victory in the prior encounter."

Loholt watched as a household knight took saddle and drew his sword. When his opponent signaled readiness, Loholt trotted forward to engage. Swords flashed and when the exchange was done, blood was flowing from the defending knight's thigh through a tear in his chain armor.

Again, Loholt was invited to stay a while as the guest of his vanquished foes. Profuse apologies were offered on the behalf of Sir Fitzroy, who was refusing to come out of his tent. Loholt felt for the knight's predicament and wished him well.

Loholt relaxed with a plate of roasted wild boar and roasted apples. He noted that the knights here were also young, but there were many maidens and pages as well. The pages were scurrying about, undertaking a multitude of petty tasks, while the maidens busied themselves shooting Loholt interested looks. There was also music and dancing and Loholt participated, although not terribly well. He found it difficult to go through the niceties of social interaction, so focused was he on his quest. He made his excuses early on and departed along the trail to the next challenge that awaited him. As he rode, Loholt wondered how many more challenges he would have to face before coming to the City of the Circle of Gold.

The woods once again closed in and Loholt guided his horse along the winding forest path. As he came around a corner, he saw ahead a crude wooden cross planted atop a rough pile of stones. The mound was too small to be a burial cairn, but what other purpose it might have served, Loholt could not discern. He rode on and presently came to a fork in the path. Reining his horse in, Loholt studied the two paths. After close study, he discerned that the right-hand path seemed to be the more frequently trafficked one, and so he took that path.

The forest thinned gradually and the trail leveled out - he had at last reached the floor of the valley. Woods gave way to fields and other signs of civilization. Ahead, Loholt spotted a small village clustered around a simple church. On a nearby hill stood a modest, unwalled manor house. As Loholt approached the village, a mounted squire followed by two squires bearing bundles of lances approached from the village. Loholt could see an armed knight mounting his horse up nearer to the manor house, and other knights emerging from the house as well. Another challenge, then.

This squire was an older man, burly with streaks of gray in his hair. He rode a fine cob, and the squires who trailed behind were also mounted, albeit on mules. "Sir, I bring you greetings from the knight of the manor! No one may pass this place without answering the challenge of my master." The squire then enumerated the usual terms and Loholt agreed. He followed the squires up to the manor. The knight who awaited them bore unfamiliar arms, although judging by the purple and gold of his raiment, Loholt guessed he was a member of the king's personal household, perhaps a direct attendant.

Loholt and the defending knight exchanged salutes and charged. This time, Loholt's lance did not find its mark and he was instead struck hard - but he managed to stay in his seat. The knights again made a pass and merely buffeted each other with their lances, neither landing a solid strike. Again they passed and again they failed to knock the other off. Finally, on the fourth pass, Loholt managed to connect solidly, and the defending knight was sent flying to the ground, still grasping at his reins as his horse reared back.

The defending knight remounted his steed and drew steel. Loholt felt fire pumping through his veins as he prepared to go up against his opponent. Like the other knights before, this one fell under the fury of Loholt's blows, coming away with a bleeding wound on his sword arm. As Loholt dismounted, he couldn't help but feel a wash of pride swelling up inside. He had made it so far and defeated so many worthy foes! He truly felt like this quest was seeing him coming into his own as a knight.

Again, the defeated knights invited Loholt to stay a while in their company. The defending knight introduced himself as Sir Aalar, Valet of the Circle of Gold. His manner was quite friendly and hospitable. "Please come into my hall and allow us to tend your hurts and let you and your mounts rest before you continue on."

Sir Aalar's hall proved to be as congenial as its master. Loholt was seated in the place of honor and roasted pheasant in honey glaze was laid before him by a young lady that turned out to be Aalar's wife. As Loholt ate, Sir Aalar spoke.

"Truth be told, good sir, I am pleased to have you here as my guest. It has been more than a year since any challenger has made it as far as my manor, and it was a most welcome diversion to be given the chance to don arms again."

Loholt smiled and nodded and continued to eat. As the last course was cleared away and everyone was picking their teeth, Sir Aalar told a tale called "The Wild Women of the Circle of Gold", and of the small part he played in it.

"Our current king is the son of King Fallagantis de la Fontaine, who was killed at the Battle of Terrabil. He is one of the 12 kings entombed with King Lot. When he was felled in that battle, his wife disappeared without notice even before word reached us from Cameliard. We should have known, though. At the moment of the old king's death, wildness was loosed upon the land. Among those terrors unleashed were the wild women. Who can say what they were? Various survivors claimed with equal certainty that they were fairies, witches, succubae, or crazed farmwives. Prince Farion was only a lad of 16, but with his childhood companions, he fared out one dark moonless night when no shadows were cast to stalk the wild women in their own domains. I, a lowly man-at-arms, was one of his friends."

Sir Aalar went on to weave a harrowing tale of battles against giant bats, skeletal warriors, and an encounter with an enigmatic "blue woman" who demanded surrender of the knights' weapons. "I alone would surrender my weapons in exchange for an unspecified pledge. Later, when most of our companions were killed or helpless, the blue woman rescued only me. I do not know if she was one of the wild women or not."

The tale continued, with Sir Aalar recounting his battle against a giant toad whose blood burned him like fire. He had freed Prince Farion and his companions from captivity, but was unable to carry on and accompany them further. Only Farion and his bosom friend, Sir Dordracole of Malahaut, were left able to press forward. This they did, accomplishing many brave deeds, but in the end Prince Farion returned alone.

"He then went straight to the City of the Circle of Gold and took the crown from the treasure room. He summoned the bishop and told him to crown him king. Soon afterward, all creatures that had plagued the kingdom were gone, although I was not sufficiently healed to participate in those adventures. King Farion rewarded me with a knighthood, this manor, and the title I now bear for my actions that night. I can tell you this much, though - the wild women were not among the creatures that had to be faced by our young king as he pacified his kingdom."

Loholt sat in silence as Sir Aalar finished his tale. "What a fantastic tale, sir. Thank you for sharing it with me." It was not yet dusk, but Loholt elected to take Aalar up on his offer of hospitality; after hearing that harrowing tale, he did not want to risk being caught out after darkness fell. The night passed uneventfully and in the morning Loholt once again set out along the trail. He moved into rough, wooded countryside, but this was less heavily forested and more dotted with clusters of trees.

As he rode, Loholt heard loud groans and cries of distress up ahead. Hurrying along the trail, Loholt again found a creature pinned and trapped. This one was held by a foot in an iron trap; nearby was the half-eaten carcass of a cow, obviously used for bait. The trapped creature was a strange brown monster, wrinkled and smelling of vinegar and the barnyard. Most remarkable, however, was the fact that it existed in only two dimensions!

Loholt dismounted and moved towards the creature, whose face was frozen in a look of sheer terror. "Mercy, sir knight! Spare me!" it screamed, covering its one eye.

"I am here to release you," said Loholt. The creature watched, uncertain, making loud snuffling noises. Once released, it moved downwind and sniffed the air some more. At last, it seemed to determine that Loholt was trustworthy.

"Thank you for releasing me," it growled. "I will tell you that ahead lies a split in the trail. Take the center path if you wish to go to the Iron Man's place. To the right is the Terrible Monster's place. To the left is the Bright Magic place." The creature then picked up the cow carcass and departed, moving weirdly.

Reasoning that the Iron Man place was probably the dwelling of knights, Loholt elected to first take the left-hand path to the Bright Magic place, thinking that perhaps a beneficial enchantment lay at the end. The path took him along a large stream through a gradually-narrowing valley filled with tall, wild grass and buzzing insects. Loholt noted several paths converging at a wide clearing large enough to joust in. Here the grass was neatly cut, similar to a garden. Beyond the glade lay a 20-foot-tall hedge, also trimmed and tended, which blocked further progress along the valley. A 20-foot-wide archway framed by rose bushes was the only way through. Next to the gateway hung an upside-down shield, a rusted suit of armor, and a wormy saddle.

Spooked by memories of Bona Dea's kingdom, Loholt turned around immediately. As he reined his horse about he heard a far-off sound of laughter and jovial conversation. Thoroughly creeped out and remembering the earlier warning to "avoid the garden," he rode away with all haste, eventually coming back to the intersection and choosing the "Iron Man" pathway.

This new pathway passed by a couple of peasant huts, then a small market village. The path widened and became obviously more well-trafficked, becoming something like a proper road. Loholt saw smaller paths branching off at intervals and leading to far-off farming villages further up the valley. In the distance ahead, Loholt could see a stone tower rising above the trees and hills.

After a bit more riding, Loholt drew near enough to the tower to make out details. It stood three stories high and was perched atop a motte, which was itself hemmed by a small village and wooden palisade. A large banner fluttered from the top of the tower and Loholt identified the arms as belonging to Sir Patrides of the Tower, a banneret of the kingdom. Nearer by, a well-dressed dwarf astride a donkey, followed by two squires atop palfreys carrying jousting lances, approached.

"God bless you, sir!" announced the dwarf. "My master bids you good day and sends a challenge." The dwarf then preceded to name the same rules as before, to which Loholt accepted. As he followed the dwarf back towards the tower, he surreptitiously swigged the very last of the magical healing blood he had retrieved when he quested with Sir Lancelot so many years ago. The enchanted blood, as always, restored Loholt's health and healed the bumps and bruises so far garnered in previous challenges. He had a feeling he was going to need all the help he could get with this next challenge.

Outside the palisade, a large knight in the finest armor appeared on a horse, saluting Loholt with a flourish - it was Sir Patrides himself. Well used to the routine by now, Loholt readied his lance and soon enough the two knights were charging each other. The first pass resulted in an ineffectual buffeting, as did the second. The third pass, however, sent the defending knight crashing to the ground with an oath of surprise. [Seriously - I rolled a natural 20 against his Horsemanship of 19!]

The two knights again engaged on horseback, this time with swords. For the first time, Loholt was bested as Patrides managed to slip through his defenses and land a blow telling enough to draw blood. Nervously, Loholt dismounted - it was all on the line now! He elected to continue using his sword and shield, as did his opponent.

The two knights circled, then Loholt moved in, pushing with his shield as he angled his sword high, bringing it down with just enough force to dislodge some chain links near the neck and draw the thinnest bead of blood. Sir Patrides immediately conceded and very graciously congratulated Loholt on a battle well-fought.

"Please, come to my tower and rest, sir knight!" Sir Patrides led the way through the palisade and up to the tower. Inside the banneret's hall, Loholt was presented with a superb feast and a delicious dish of rabbit in onion fennel sauce. As Loholt ate, Sir Patrides' wife dressed his wounds and refilled his cup; Sir Patrides' three lovely (marriageable) daughters made conversation.

"Tell me," asked Loholt in between bites, "did my friend Sir Palomides make it this far during his own challenge?"

"Indeed he did," said Sir Patrides. "I fought him and defeated him - he went no further than my tower. Most do not."

After the feast, a bard came forward and sang an excellent song about King Farion tricking a pack of gryphons into an enchanted trap, where they had remained ever since. Loholt tried his hand at tale-telling and singing, but his heart wasn't in it, so focused was he on his quest. As the day was still young, and Patrides' daughters had been so signally unimpressed with his courtly grace, Loholt elected to move on. The trade road beyond the tower was much more frequently-trafficked, being bounded by planted fields and filled with friendly peasants on foot and in ox carts, as well as flocks of sheep being driven between pastures.

The large stream that Loholt had seen earlier was wending its way through this part of the valley as well. However, at the point where the road forded the stream, a traffic jam had built up. A herd of sheep stood bleating around the stream, blocking the road entirely and ignoring the attention of barking herd dogs. In the very middle of the stream was an ox, hitched to a cart and covered in blood, bellowing in pain and anger. A dozen men and women of varying ages swarmed about, yelling and arguing with each other.

As Loholt pressed forward through the milling throng, one of the arguing peasants spotted him and yelled out, "At last, here comes a gentleman who can settle our quarrels! He knows what is right and wrong!"

"What goes on here?" Loholt asked. The peasants all stepped forward, all holding cap in hand and speaking respectfully. One by one they enumerated their cases. What unfolded was a complicated case involving a skittish cart ox, a belligerent herd boy, a borrowed axe and whetstone, a sister-in-law, and a comment that either was or was not made. Loholt considered the matter and [critting his Arbitrary roll] ordered the ox and herd moved first, regardless of who was right or wrong.

"I'm not here to settle your petty arguments!" said Loholt. "What needs to happen is that this road needs to get clear so I can carry on in my quest!"

The herd boy lept forward, pointing an accusatory finger at Loholt. "I hope the devils of the castle take you! Take the path ahead and be gone!" he said, indicating a three-way fork in the road further on. With a whistle, he led his dogs and flock away.

The sister-in-law spat on the ground at Loholt's feet. "You deserve the deadly sisters to the left instead!" The cart driver, frowning, said, "The gryphons are to the left. Take the right fork, sir."

With a gruff farewell, Loholt pressed on past the fork and took the center fork, which quickly widened into a major trade road that bore evidence of much human and animal traffic. Ahead, a shining castle stood on a hill nearby a small, walled town. As he approached the castle, a horn blared and a man in livery rode out. He was clearly a herald, and he signaled for Loholt to halt at the edge of a large, plowed field. Loholt noted that, atop the painted walls of the castle, many ladies and courtiers had begun to appear and observe him from afar.

"Sir knight! My lord, Baron Varangis of the Castle of the Yellow Ghost, sends you welcome, warning, and opportunity. To honor you, he pledges that you will have lodging and safety in the hall of his castle tonight, even were you his sworn foe. He welcomes you with baths, fine clothing, feasting, and excellent company. A warning he sends, too: the path ahead is deadly, and none has yet to return from it. Pass only at your mortal peril. Opportunity is offered to you as well. The Baron knows a secret that he will offer to you if you can best his man in battle upon this field. His champion will ride out and face you. If you win the contest, you will win the secret. No one is required to fight except those who would gain the Baron's aid. Should you not wish the Baron's aid, you will be welcomed into the castle and may continue on in the morning unimpeded. But such a course of action will, I fear, greatly disappoint the assembled ladies of the court."

"I choose to fight," said Loholt, figuring he could use all the help he could get. In addition to the courtiers atop the castle walls, more observers had filed out and lined the edges of the field, the better to witness the fight. Soon after the herald galloped back to the castle, a knight came forth. He was an imposing figure in fine armor, but his arms were unfamiliar. The terms were announced: it was to be a fight on horseback, fought until one challenger was knocked to the ground. The challenge would start with lances, but either fighter could switch to another weapon at any time after the first exchange of blows. None of the weapons were to be rebated.

Impassioned as always by his amor for Orlande, Loholt charged forward, his sharpened lance aimed straight at the challenger's helm. His lance exploded as it made contact; the defending knight was sent sprawling, his horse also driven to the ground. A great cheer went up from the spectators at having witnessed such a mighty feat of arms, and a fanfare of trumpets sounded from the ramparts. The herald reappeared with another knight riding behind him.

"Presenting Varangis, Baron of the Castle of the Yellow Ghost!" As the champion was borne, unconscious, from the field, the Baron approached on a black charger, flanked by an escort of lovely young women.

"May I present you with this, Sir Loholt," said the Baron, producing a rich fur cape fastened with a clasp of worked gold. Loholt humbly accepted the prize. "I have never seen such a display of martial prowess!" the Baron enthused. He then invited Loholt back to the castle.

The ensuing feast in the Baron's hall was lavish, greater by far than any Loholt had attended so far on this quest. Loholt took it easy, resting and enjoying the food, particularly the roast venison in plum sauce. He also listened with interest as the Baron talked, revealing considerable knowledge of Loholt's deeds in the kingdom up to that point, praising his prowess and expounding on his victories. The Baron called his champion forth, and the young knight was borne in on a litter.

"This is none other than my own son," said Baron Varangis, "and I would have him speak of your prowess in battle! Speak, boy!" Loholt waived this off, insisting that the son be allowed to rest and recuperate. After this, the Baron at last revealed his secret to Loholt. With a flautist playing a double flute in the background, Varangis told Loholt of the final encounter that yet remained.

"Sir, if you go on to the City of the Circle of Gold, know that the challenge that awaits you there is a fight to the death. No one who challenges the King of the Circle of Gold to a fight may leave the city unless he is the new king. King Farion will not accept any defeat except death and the victor must become the new King of the Circle of Gold and either uphold the Adventure, facing all challengers in a battle to the death, or else let loose all the magic of the land. Victory would be bitter; although success would doubtless grant you regal pleasures, it also means a lifelong obligation. I have no idea what would happen if the requirement to meet all challengers were ignored by the king, for no challenging knight has ever come close to success.

"One possible escape exists. My men can escort you through a hidden pathway that, I believe, will permit you to leave this land. I will tell everyone that the Yellow Ghost of this castle has once again taken a victim to its unknown lair. The creature is not real and has been used since the time of King Fallagantis to explain how challenging knights have disappeared. The hidden pathway leads to the Rose Bower, a place full of women where chaste knights need not worry - and where others certainly will not worry." He paused, savoring a distant memory. "Once there, you will be free of any further demands to continue the adventure. From the Rose Bower, one may pass out of the Kingdom of the Circle of Gold, though I do not know how precisely."

Loholt sat back, stunned. A myriad of different paths seemed to stretch before him. What should he do? If he abandoned his quest, he would never see Orlande again. If he carried on, he could be killed. Even if he succeeded, though, he would become king of a land he could never leave behind unless he was willing to doom all its inhabitants to a harrowing of wild women, gryphons, fiends, and who knew what other foul things?

He pictured going on and dying at the hands of King Farion. Back in Sarum and Camelot, his fate would remain a mystery. "He rode off to the west and never returned," they would say. Orlande would assume he had failed, as he had sworn never to see her again. There would be no way to tell whether he had died or had run away...

"Tell me," said Loholt after a good long while, "if the new king were to abandon the Adventure and in so doing unleash the creatures - would that really be so horrible?"

The Baron laughed sardonically. "I was a young man when King Fallagantis died and there were terrible monsters throughout the land. Should such a thing happen again, many would die and the land would become a haunted wilderness."

At last, Loholt arrived at a decision. "I thank you for your kind counsel and offer of escape, but I must continue on my quest. The amor I carry in my heart and my honor have driven me thus far, and I must see this through to the end."

The Baron nodded solemnly. "I wish you the best of luck, though I do not know what that luck may look like."

Loholt spent the night in the hall and awoke refreshed in the morning, filled with determination. He was back on the road before the sun was fully up; mist still clung to the fields. He rode with an escort consisting of Baron Varangis and his household knights. As the procession made its way along the road to the City of the Circle of Gold, peasants emerged from their cottages and joined in. Soon, a huge mob trailed Loholt on his way.

Ahead, he could see the City, surrounded by earthworks and a curtain wall. The gates, however, already stood open, and many citizens crowded the battlements and streets to see this new challenger. Shop keepers and their families leaned out second story windows, scattering flower petals as Loholt rode by. At last, he reached the city center, which had been kept clear of onlookers by armed guards. In the middle of the paved square stood a 25-foot pole, upon which gleamed the Circle of Gold, reflecting the first rays of the new-dawning sun.

Loholt spotted a knot of knights and squires standing by with spare shields and lances. And there, in their midst, sat King Farion upon his caparisoned charger. A herald rode forward. "Why have you come to this place?" he asked.

"I have come to challenge the king for the Circle of Gold," said Loholt, his voice flat. The terms of the challenge were laid out, and they were as Baron Varangis had said. It was to be a fight to the death, with the victor taking the Circle, and that the king must accept any further challenges for the Circle in perpetuity. "I accept these terms," said Loholt, his voice echoing across the square.

A great fanfare of trumpets then blew. "The challenge of the Circle of Gold has been made by Sir Loholt!" said the herald in a ringing voice. "Let no person interfere with this fight. May God bless and give victory to the best knight and have mercy on the soul of the loser!"

Farion and Loholt both dismounted, for it was to be a fight on foot. The two combatants advanced into the square, the Circle of Gold looking down on them as a hush fell over the City. Loholt was armed with sword and shield; Farion, on the other hand, was to fight with a sword in one hand and an axe in the other. Despite the love he felt for Orlande, Loholt began to wonder what he had gotten himself into. The thought of Orlande seeing the proof of how much he loved her, though, swept such doubts from his mind. It was kill or be killed, and Loholt had no intention of falling under Farion's sword or axe.

The combatants began to circle each other. They closed in, and Loholt ducked past a swinging sword, feinted past Farion's axe - and landed a softly glancing blow. [Des rolled all ones on her damage!] They were engaged now, and began to trade blows. Loholt managed to land another telling strike, and this one hit much harder. Farion reeled back, blood running from a rent in his plate armor, but he stayed on his feet. More blows were exchanged to little effect. The sun began to climb above the rooftops. Distracted by a ray of sunlight, Farion dropped his guard for a moment, and Loholt struck like a snake, drawing more blood, then pressed his advantage further, landing another hit that knocked the king's helmet askew. Yet still Farion kept his feet!

More blows were exchanged as the citizens of the town watched in anxious tension. Farion and Loholt were both drenched in sweat, and the king was bleeding from multiple wounds. Again the two fighters engaged. They locked blades and Loholt, seeing the axe swinging his way, threw an elbow out and pushed Farion back. The king stumbled and fell to the paved ground, his helmet skittering away, where he lay groaning and stirring but slightly. The crowd let out a great gasp.

Loholt kicked Farion's axe out of his hand, then put his sword to the king's throat. Farion looked up at Loholt, his eyelids fluttering weakly, as the herald ran over. "The Adventure is unfinished! Only the king's death will release the Circle of Gold from the pole," said the herald.

Loholt continued to look at Farion. "What is the point of carrying on this Adventure?"

"Protecting the land," said Farion weakly.

"And you are willing to die for this?"

"I am." The whole City seemed to be holding its breath. The herald licked his lips, anxiously.

With a flick of his wrist, Loholt slit Farion's throat with the tip of his sword. Farion expired with a bloody gurgle. The herald knelt to confirm this, then rose. "The king is dead! Long live the king!" The crowd repeated the cry as the herald led Loholt to the pole. There he was handed a lance long enough to reach the top and retrieve the Circle. Loholt did so, bringing down a handsome gold crown embedded with pearls, emeralds, and other precious stones.

Loholt held the Circle of Gold in his hand as the ringing of the citizens' cheers rang in his ears. The remainder of the day was a blur: Loholt being crowned, a great feast, and so forth. Through it all, Loholt brooded. He thought hard on where the Adventure of the Circle began. It began with King Fallagantis refusing to swear fealty to Uther Pendragon, with Fallagantis's refusal to accept the rule of any High King. Now, Uther's son Arthur was High King - and Loholt had not only sworn fealty to him, he was his blood kin!

In the days to come, Loholt dispatched messengers into the outside world to find word of Arthur's whereabouts. News came back that the Pendragon was currently holding court in Carlion. Loholt sent for King Arthur, explaining why he needed to come. In another month's time, Arthur and a small number of his court came to the Kingdom of the Circle of Gold. They were welcomed with all the pomp and ceremony due to such a great visitor. In his hall, Loholt told the captivating tale of his journey to the throne of this kingdom, carefully omitting the name of the lady who sent him on the quest in the first place. Everyone, Arthur included, sat spellbound at Loholt's words. Finally, at the end, Loholt announced that he was ready to swear fealty to Arthur Pendragon.

"My lady Nimue, please come forth," said Arthur. The Lady of the Lake stepped before the two kings, bowing. "What do you think will happen if Loholt swears fealty to me?"

"I believe," said Nimue, after some thought, "that by swearing fealty to a Pendragon, the original intent of the challenge is negated. It is likely that having a blood relation on the throne has already done so, fealty or no. I declare the Adventure of the Circle of Gold to be at an end. However, I sense that there is still a powerful enchantment on the land. As long as this kingdom has a king, its foes will be contained. Should the king fall or abdicate, those creatures will be unleashed. King Loholt will therefore remain tied to this land for the rest of his life. You are free to come and go as you please, but your death, wherever it may occur, will bring great woe to this land."

"Let us not dwell on such grim thoughts, though," said Arthur, smiling. "King Loholt, you have shown yourself to be a great and worthy knight, and I can think of no better recognition of this than offering you a seat on the Round Table."

"My liege," said Loholt, bowing.

Another great feast was held to celebrate these happy tidings. It was now Loholt's turn to listen as Arthur told him of a remarkable event that had occurred in Carlion just before Loholt's summons had arrived: a stripling in homemade armor had showed up at court and killed an evil knight who had grievously insulted the queen - and the boy vanquished his foe using only a sharpened stick! He ran off before any could learn his name or where he came from. "I have most of my Round Table knights out searching for the lad even now," said Arthur, a gleam in his eye. "I told them that even if they failed to find the lad, they would find Adventure. And here you are, acting the exemplar of what I was talking about! Great Adventure finds us where we least suspect it."

"There is one other matter," said Arthur, more grimly. "Those messengers I sent to France to see about your betrothal? They returned with their hands cut off and a message from the French king saying to send him more famous knights so that he might give them the same treatment."

"Terrible tidings!" said Loholt, shocked.

"Yes. I fear these tidings mean war," said Arthur, glowering over the rim of his goblet. Suddenly, he looked at Loholt. "You will soon discover just how heavily the crown will weigh upon your head, my son."
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