This year marked the beginning of a new period, the Tournament Period. Quoth the Great Pendragon Campaign:
The realm is peaceful, the bandit kings have been suppressed, and the faeries are imposing themselves (but as often for good as for ill). The lords of the realm are content to indulge in sponsoring more tournaments and building larger castles. There seems to be little worry of war.
On the other hand, some gossips talk more than they ought about that which is not their business. Some idealists are happy to find imperfections in the realm, which is not hard to do. Sometimes discontent is widespread, as is mistrust or suspicion...
Gossip around the hearth at Sarum over the winter focused on the prospects of young Graid, scion of Salisbury's greatest knight. Many talked of his apparent inheritance of his father's famous modesty - as well as his equally famous hatred of Saxons. Graid was also marked for his energy, forgiveness, valor, loyalty to his lord and love of his family, and - this quickly became apparent - his hospitality, as he entertained most of the local knights in the county (including Herringdale's aged cousin, Sir Ulprus) at one point or another, everyone coming around to "get a good look" at the promising youth. His performance at the Tournament of the Wyrm had even made him known beyond the boundaries of his home county. Whenever he hosted visitors, however, Graid would demur from talking of his own deeds and instead speak of his devotion to King Arthur and his adoration of the Queen.
Despite his promising prospects, Graid was still beset by the half-remembered experiences of his Lost Year. His sleep was troubled and he noted his body seemed to be slowly wasting despite his best efforts to keep fit. And there was the small matter of Broughton Hall being in a state of semi-ruin. Before he was able to entertain anyone, and hurrying ahead of the onset of winter weather, Graid had enlisted his commoners to help get the manor building back into shape.
Graid set about martialing his peasants for the task of renovating and restoring the manor house and grounds. And every Sunday, he invited the whole village for a grand feast, hoping to ingratiate himself as their new lord. The whole process was to take three months. The caved-in roof was repaired and re-thatched, the dead leaves and detritus swept out, the walls replastered. During the process of renovating the bedchamber, Graid found a mosaic set into the wall.
"How queer," he muttered, brushing away the cobwebs. The mosaic depicted a knight in old-fashioned armor, charging forth with mace held on high. Strangely, it appeared to have been vandalized: someone had gouged the face out. Graid wondered who the knight was. "It's probably my father’s face," he thought to himself. "One can't get as famous and powerful as he without making some enemies."
As he mused on the mosaic, Graid heard booted feet coming up the stone stairs leading to the chambers. Graid placed his hand on the pommel of his dagger and turned. "Hello?" he called.
In the door stood a young man, well-accoutred and with a sword hanging by his side. "Uncle?" said the man, who was nearly Graid's age. Graid had not seen the youth in several years, but realized at once that it was indeed his nephew, Gilmere, son of his half-sister Loorette.
"Gilmere!" said Graid, striding over.
"Sir Gilmere!" said his nephew, laughing, patting the sword at his side.
"Indeed!" said Graid. "What brings you here?"
"Well, uncle, I had heard you were knighted last year and had come back home."
"When did you become a knight?" asked Graid.
"Just last month!" said Gilmere, beaming. "I am a member of the household of Earl Robert now."
"And how do you like it?"
"Well enough." Gilmere looked around. "The Earl's hall is a sight more congenial than yours at the moment, I dare say."
"Yes, there is much work to be done," said Graid, ruefully. "I was just looking at this mosaic. It appears to have been vandalized."
"Who could have done that?" Gilmere wondered. "Saxon bandits? Peasant children?"
"I don't know. I'm wondering if I should just tear it down."
"No, no! Leave it!" said Gilmere. "Grandfather Herringdale's legacy should be preserved as much as possible. This is the family home, as it were."
"True. But whose face was it? I'm assuming it was my father's?"
"We'll probably never know."
The manor's repairs and renovations were done in time for Yule, and Graid threw his grandest feast yet, the villeins building great bonfires and dancing long into the cold evening. On Twelfth Night, Graid received a message by rider bearing the seal of Sir Ferren from Grately Manor. As planned, the Tournament of the Wyrm was to be held again shortly after Pentecost, and Graid was invited to return as guest of honor.
"Please feel free to come early and enjoy my hospitality, for without your heroic actions I would not even have a hall to host you!" wrote Sir Ferren. Graid wondered whether Sir Ferren was trying to arrange a marriage, but then remembered that Ferren's wife, Lady Zoe, was notoriously protective of her daughters, keeping all would-be suitors at arms' length. Graid concluded that he was probably being invited simply to increase Ferren's prestige and the prestige of the tournament. He realized most of the visitors to his hall that winter had similarly only come around due to Graid's notoriety. Only Gilmere seemed to value Graid as a person rather than an ideal, and they spent many an evening drinking and chatting near the restored hearth of Broughton Hall.
"Did you hear that Sir Borre is heading to the Continent to help the de Ganis lads win back their lands?" asked Gilmere one evening.
"You don't say?" said Graid, surprised. He had always thought of Borre as more of a courtier than a campaigner.
"As for myself," said Gilmere, "I don't feel like I need to travel to some far-off land to wage war when we have all these tournaments going on right in our backyards!"
"It is exciting!" Graid agreed.
"I heard that Sir Gawaine has endorsed tournaments as good practice to keep us fit for fighting, but I enjoy them as much for the spectacle," Gilmere admitted. "The joust! The helm show!"
Graid nodded sagely, his eyes dancing with visions of richly-caparisoned knights in silver armor smashing lances on each others' shields.
"They say Gawaine is going to hold a grand tournament in his homeland of Lothian next year. Do you think we should go?" asked Gilmere excitedly.
"Isn't Gawaine married to a lady of the Fair Folk?" asked Graid, his heart suddenly and inexplicably fluttering. "I don't know...maybe we should. I shall think on it."
"Well, at the very least we'll go to this Tournament of the Wyrm, eh uncle? Tell me the story again, the story of how you slew the beast!"
"Ah now, Gilmere, it wasn't just me, I've told you that!" said Graid, smiling. And he sat down on his chair and began to weave the tale yet again...
Spring arrived and with it warm weather and green fields. Pentecost came and went and soon it was time to return to Grately Manor. Riding the trail paralleling Harewood up through Nether, Middle, and Upper Wallop, Graid and Gilmere encountered a lady and her escort on the road not far from Grately. The lady, garbed in scarlet and white silk, rode upon a gelding, while a half-dozen armed footmen walked in her wake. Graid hailed the group and approached courteously, recognizing as he did so the young Lady Alis, daughter of Sir Ferren.
Graid felt the eyes of the chief sergeant upon him, watching him closely. Alis, on the other hand, flashed Graid a sharp-toothed smile. "What have we here? A knight adventurous, out on a quest?"
"If only. I am merely traveling to your father's tournament."
"Oh, you must be Sir Graid!" she said, feigning ignorance. Graid was rankled for a moment before realizing she was merely being coy.
"And who is this that rides with you?"
"This is my nephew, Sir Gilmere."
Alis nodded approvingly. "Well, with an escort of two gentle knights such as yourselves, I think we would make much better time without the encumbrance of my footmen, here. You are dismissed to the next village," she said to the sergeant, who grudgingly watched Alis ride off with the two knights.
As the trio rode on, Alis spoke of her time at the court of Countess Katherine in Sarum, relating tales of petty court gossip and record harvest takings. Graid noted to himself that the time away from her domineering mother had seemed to have done Lady Alis some good; she was much more vivacious, her personality much more evident, than last year. Alis also spoke of gossip from Camelot. Many courtiers there observed that King Arthur was not his usual self, seeming somewhat distracted and dissipated of late. "My lady Katherine thinks that he still frets over the queen's kidnapping," Alis ventured, in a tone that clearly suggested that if the countess thought this the most likely explanation, Alis did as well.
"Oh! How I would like to go to Camelot one day!" she said in a transport of excited imagination. "It is the greatest city in the world they say, save perhaps for the Holy City, but that is very far away indeed."
"Someday we will all go, I am sure," said Graid. "I cannot wait to see our king again - he knighted me, you know - and to see his magnificent court." Graid expounded on the virtues of Arthur and his rule for some time, Alis listening with interest the whole time.
After an hour of such talk, the riders entered a stretch of light woodland separating two hamlets. The woods were well-traveled and not in the least bit wild, alive instead with the sounds of small forest creatures, sun dappling the grassy ground. Yet Alis shuddered, looking around. "I do hope there are no Saxon bandits in these woods!" she said, shuddering again.
"Saxons?" asked Graid sharply. "I would protect you from them even unto death!" he said, his bilious hatred of the invaders rising up inside. Alis smiled broadly.
"You know, my father pays good money for the head of any Saxon bandit caught trespassing on his land. He hates the Saxons, he does."
"As do I!" said Graid passionately, gripping the hilt of his sword. "He and I shall have much to talk about when we come to his hall at last."
The trio rode on, out of the woods and on through manorial villages. The day was growing long, but Alis said Grately was very near, just over the next rise. Entering a small hamlet, Lady Alis’s gelding suddenly spooked and charged away, tearing out over a plowed field. Digging in his spurs, and mounted as he was upon a superior charger, Graid caught the gelding easily and stopped it with even greater ease. He couldn't help but think that the horse had never really gone out of control, that Lady Alis had only been pretending. The impish glint in her eyes seemed to confirm this, as did her excited breathing and broad smile.
"You saved me!" she said, placing her gloved hand upon Graid's. The young knight’s face flushed crimson.
At last, Graid and his companions arrived at Grately manor. Riding through the village, Graid could see no indication that any sort of preparation for a tourney was underway. No stands or lists had been erected, and the whole village had an air of subdued quietude. Looking up at the stone manor, situated atop a hillock overlooking the village, Graid could see that Sir Ferren’s planned additions to the building had gone ahead in the wake of the slaying of the wyrm, but no workmen bustled on the scaffolding that still covered part of the nearly-completed construction. No oxen were hitched to carts, no activity of any sort was in evidence. It looked like it could have been a holy day or a festival day, but it was neither.
More worryingly, Graid caught sight of a funerary display hanging over the door of the village chapel. The arms indicated the deceased was the son of a knight, but Graid did not recognize the heraldry.
“To what family do those arms belong?” Graid queried Alis. Her expression darkened as she looked at the banner.
“I do not know,” she said, her ebullient mood subdued.
Two squires warmly greeted the knights and Alis as they approached the manor. “My lord!” said one to Graid, as the other helped Lady Alis off her mount. “Your return is most welcome! Please, allow us to escort you and tend to your horses. They shall be given the finest oats and barley, and you shall be treated to a great feast at the side of our master. He shall not keep you waiting long. Come!”
“Please, sir knight, you and your companion must rest after your journey.” She led Graid and Gilmere to high-backed chairs near the hearth and provided them with wash basins and goblets of wine. A table was brought out, set up, and laid with breads, cheeses, and smoked meats, which Graid and Gilmere helped themselves to enthusiastically.
As the clean platters and cups were cleared away by Alis’s younger sisters, Gilmere leaned in and whispered to Graid, “I could be wrong, but it seems that the Lady Zoe has been crying.” Graid furrowed his brow in consternation.
“My lady,” said Graid when next Lady Zoe came near the table, “forgive me, but you look distressed. Is there any reason for your sorrow?”
“Hm? No! Certainly not. Everything is at it should be.”
“Where is Sir Ferren?”
“He shall attend this evening, at the main feast.”
“I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“No, certainly. My lord husband assures me that he’ll see to everything this evening. My servants can take you to your baths.”
The knights were led from the hall into a warm kitchen, where a wooden tub lined with linen sheets had been filled with hot water. Graid and Gilmere each took a dip in turn and prepared themselves for the feast, bringing their finest courtly garb out of their traveling trunks.
By the time they reemerged into the hall, two more tables had been set up and several courtiers had gathered. Lady Zoe, Alis, and Ferren’s other daughters had assembled as well, with Zoe seated and the girls tending the high table.
“Nuts?” Alis offered Graid, proffering a silver bowl full of spiced almonds. Shortly after, a poached salmon was brought forth to general applause, although Graid noted signs of hurried preparation. And still Sir Ferren’s chair stood empty. “Please, eat!” Lady Zoe entreated. Graid started in on the first course, still unsure of whether he was being properly hospitable.
As the salmon was cleared away, Graid noted an old knight, bent and crooked with age, sidle into the hall from a side door. With a jolt, Graid realized that the hobbling old man before him was none other than Sir Ferren! When last Graid had seen him, Ferren had been a knight entering his later years, certainly, but now it looked as if he had aged decades in just 12 short months. Graid jumped up out of his chair, intent on running to Sir Ferren’s side. Lady Zoe placed a calming hand on Graid’s arm.
“What has happened to him? He barely resembles the man I saw just a year ago," Graid marveled.
Lady Zoe merely watched her husband, a pained expression upon her face. Slowly, Ferren shuffled over to his chair and eased himself into the seat.
“Greetings, Sir Graid,” said Ferren, in a voice barely above a whisper. “Please, eat,” he said, as a second course of roasted meat was brought out.
Graid nodded and focused on the food before him, allowing Ferren some space, repressing his urge to ask questions. Ferren, for his part, barely touched his food, but attempted to maintain a convivial atmosphere, asking Graid to speak of what he had been up to in the last year. As Graid spoke, he noticed Ferren’s attention wandering. Gradually, Graid trailed off and stopped his tale. Ferren didn’t seem to notice. In fact, by the time the third and final course came out, the lord of the manor had dozed off in his chair.
“Please forgive my husband,” said Zoe. “This happens.” She motioned to Alis, and the two ladies took Ferren by the arms and led him out of the hall, still half-dozing. The savory pie was finished off in awkward silence and the hall cleared out.
“I don’t know what to make of all this,” said Gilmere. “Could it be an illness?”
“Very worrisome,” said Graid, as he and Gilmere made their beds near the fireplace. Graid laid down and slept, but was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of someone moving through the hall, walking in full armor. Graid was instantly awake, hand reaching for his sword, when he realized the armored figure was walking towards the main doors, bent and stooped, with a shuffling gait. “Sir Ferren?” Graid called out.
He rose and caught up to the old knight. “What are you doing, sir?” Graid asked. Sir Ferren didn’t respond, but continued moving with purpose to the doors, flinging them wide. Graid followed, sword in hand, wrapping himself in a bearskin against the chill of the night. Immediately upon opening the door, a charnel smell washed into the hall from the darkness beyond. A pale, waxing moon cast a silvery light over the manor grounds. Ahead, Graid could see a figure seemingly materialize out of the darkness. It stood upon a large cracked stone and seemed to shimmer with a sickly green light. It was clearly some sort of spirit apparition. Swallowing hard, Graid proceeded to follow Ferren, who continued to shuffle towards the figure.
The spirit had the look of an ancient warrior, armed with a short sword and round shield. Sir Ferren approached the ghost, sword out and at the ready, and the spirit stepped down from the rock; knight and ghost began to circle each other, sizing each other up. As the spirit circled around, Graid could see, in ghostly green light, a great gash across the figure’s back, an obviously mortal wound. He stood by, uncertain of what to do, as Ferren and the ghost joined in combat.
Despite its seemingly insubstantial nature, the spirit was able to land solid blows on Sir Ferren, who was taking a defensive stance and mostly absorbing the blows with his shield. Graid burned with a desire to intervene - surely this was not a fair fight! Sword in hand, clad only in his chemise and bearskin, Graid lept forward, bringing his sword down on the knight’s head - and overbalancing, as the blade passed straight through. The specter seemed to take no notice. Graid backed off and watched.
The combat kept going, Ferren keeping his shield up, doing nothing to try and land a blow. Nonetheless, he was wounded several times, the ghost’s rusty blade cleaving through mail and drawing blood. Strangely, despite his continued exertions, Ferren’s wounds did not seem to bleed very much. In fact, as time went on, Graid noted that the wounds seemed to be scabbing up and knitting with supernatural speed. Truly he was witnessing a great wonder!
The combat went on and on. The moon dipped below the horizon and the sky began to grow gray with pre-dawn light. The spirit, sensing the coming of the sun, stepped back and faded away into nothing, at which Sir Ferren immediately collapsed. From the eaves of the manor emerged Ferren’s two squires, but Graid got to the old knight first. He looked even older and more decrepit than he had at the feast, but he was still alive. Graid noted that the places he’d been struck had indeed already healed, but had left behind terrible scars.
Sir Ferren’s squires bore their master up with practiced ease. Graid got the strong impression that this was not nearly as unique an event as he had first supposed. He watched as the squires carried Ferren back into the manor house, then followed them. Lady Zoe was in the hall, watching Ferren with a mixture of pain, sorrow, and pity.
“My lady, you must tell me what is going on,” said Graid, coming up alongside her.
“My lord, please! Allow me to see to the needs of my husband!” she said, her voice cracking. “I shall speak to you at first light.”
Graid nodded and went to catch a few winks alongside Gilmere, who had slept through the whole thing. In due time, Graid was reawoken by Lady Zoe coming back into the hall. She sat down on a stool near the hearth as Graid propped himself up.
“Please accept my humblest apologies for my brash words earlier,” she said.
“No, no!” said Graid, waving away the apology. Gilmere now awoke, blinking confusedly.
“I am so sorry to have kept the nature of things from you,” Zoe continued. “You are clearly a worthy man, and concern shines from you. My husband is proud and refused any aid in this matter. Only his worsening condition compels me to speak of these things to you now. In part, I think his stubbornness is born of his surety that there are none who might help. I pray this is not the case.”
“As do I.”
“Let me explain.”
Lady Zoe then began recounting everything that had transpired at Grately Manor after the slaying of the great wyrm. Construction began on the manor, and things went very well. Old foundations near the rubble pile were uncovered, a fine base to build upon, which speeded up building considerably. As work began in earnest, however, so too did the mass desertions. It became nearly impossible to keep anyone on the job for more than week before the worker would slip away back to their home. When hauled before Sir Ferren, the villein would explain that he could feel cold hands on his back as he worked. They spoke of whispered voices telling them to leave, of unattended tools moving on their own, sometimes falling onto workmen below. A scaffold collapse which killed the master mason proved the final straw, and Sir Ferren could find none willing to work on the construction any longer.
“The night after the mason died, that’s when our real troubles began,” continued Lady Zoe, a far-off look in her eyes as she recalled those grim times. “A charnel smell, like an open grave, blew in off the diggings. Strange sounds from under the earth, as if Hell itself was opening. The servants cowered in the chapel as my lord husband donned harness and blade and went forth to investigate, ordering me to remain in the hall with our children. For hours, there I dwelt ‘til I could stand the tension no longer and ran forth to investigate. Dawn was approaching and I heard the sound of combat as I left the hall. It was then that I first espied my lord engaged in combat with a specter straight from the inferno.”
“Was it the one I saw this evening?” asked Graid, his voice firm.
“It was. My husband was covered in many wounds. The fighting only ceased with the coming of the dawn. After that first fight, my lord laid abed all day, hardly speaking, eating, or talking, melancholy beyond words. Though my lord is not young, the gray that crept into his hair that day alone was more than all his previous years had gained him.
“Each night the spirit returns and my husband rouses from his sick bed and goes out to fight it. As the nights have gone on, his condition has worsened. Each day has eaten less, stirred less, and said less. In my fear, I have tried to prevent him from going out to meet the fiend again. One week ago, I had my servants tie him to his bed. That night, the creature appeared as usual. While my husband screamed and thrashed in his bed, the fiend came into our own hall and slew my lord’s eldest squire, my nephew. He was buried two days ago.”
At this point, Zoe’s tale was interrupted by a dry, racking sob. Graid and Gilmere remained silent as she regained her composure.
“Though I hate it with all my heart,” Zoe continued, “I have not bound my husband again. Once the supernatural nature of the threat became clear, I called for the village priest. I admit, he was no expert on these matters, a fact he repeated to me often enough as I fairly dragged him up the hill to the manor. But I was in earnest. He gathered up all the relics from our family shrine and from the village church and went to the excavations to confront the spirit.
“He read the rituals with quavering voice, and when the ground trembled and spoke, he dropped his silver holy water sprinkler. Candles were extinguished by breezes reeking of blood and slaughter. As night drew near, the apparition appeared and the priest ran screaming into the darkness. No one has seen him again.”
Graid chuckled in spite of himself.
“In my despreation, I have recalled a possibility for help. I implore you, Sir Graid, as a great and worthy knight, to seek out the Skinny Man, who helped me once before.”
Graid and Gilmere exchanged a quick look. “I’m sorry?” said Graid.
Lady Zoe grew pale, recalling a dark moment from her past. “For a price. God save me, he helped me for a price,” she said in a voice scarcely more than a whisper.
“Where can the Skinny Man be found?”
“I hail originally from the county of Hertford, and it is there that he can be found. At the base of the Gogmagog Hills.”
“That is a way away. We must ride immediately.”
“Tell him as much as he wishes to know, and he will tell you what needs to be done to defeat the specter. Perhaps he and the fiend are old acquaintences?” Zoe ventured with a wry chuckle.
Graid and Gilmere began preparing for the long ride to Hertford. It would take about a week’s round trip to go there and return - Graid could only hope that Ferren would hold out that long.
Outside the hall, as the sun rose above the woods, Graid and Gilmere were checking tack and giving their horses one last brushing before moutning up. Lady Zoe came out, carrying a small foot locker, heavily reinforced with iron bands.
“Old Skinny is no one’s friend,” she said, setting the locker down on the ground at Graid’s feet. “He will not give you a thing for free.” Producing a key from the end of a long string up her sleeve, she opened the chest. “I have many things I consider precious. I had such before and he wanted none of them but one. This time I send you well-equipped to buy his aid.”
Zoe first pulled out a pearl necklace from the chest. “This is part of my daughter’s dowry. A string of pearls from Byzantium.” Each pearl was the size of a rat’s eye and had a greenish-blue tinge. One of Zoe’s servants had laid a cloth out on the ground, and there the necklace was placed. Lady Zoe continued producing items, setting them out on the cloth: gold cups, crystal philes, exotic wines. “Take all of these.”
At this point, she paused, regarding the remaining items in the chest. “Sad I am to part with these, but in truth I love my husband more than I love the saints in heaven. If their priest had been worth the food that filled him, I would not have need of this.”
With that, she removed a small gold box, intricately patterned and inlaid with precious stones. “Inside this box is the fingerbone of St. Prisca, beheaded by Emperor Claudius’s torturers.” With a shaking hand, she set the box on the cloth, then reached once again into the locker.
This time, Zoe produced a fine wooden box carved with crosses and studded with gems. “Here is one of the arrowheads that martyred St. Sebastian,” she said, setting it down.
“What I am entrusting to you, I can think the Skinny Man may be interested in. True, I have not given you all we have, but in the past there were many things Skinny spurned. If you think yourselves so inclined, I warn you against bartering of your own accord with the Skinny Man. His tastes may be odd, his requests seemingly trivial, but I tell you from experience: you will not miss what you give him until it is gone.
“I shall not delay you any longer. Ride northeast for Hertford until you reach the village of Hobblefield. Once in the village, take the left fork off the village and into the hills. Whenever given an opportunity, take the left turn of the path you follow. That will take you to Skinny’s place.”
“Thank you, m’lady,” said Graid, bowing. He and Gilmere mounted up and rode out without further delay. Crossing Silchester, they descended into the Thames Valley, overnighting at Staines, then pressing on into the shadowy boughs of the Quinqueroi Forest that marked the county of Hertford. Following local directions, the travelers reached Hobblefield, a small village of 50 souls located in a clearing in the woods. It had taken them three days of travel to get there.
“T’is a dismal and eldritch place,” muttered Gilmere.
“The locals seem much the same,” observed Graid, grateful that they’d be riding straight through. Many a surly, inbred gaze followed the knights as they passed through and carried on up the left path, a narrow, rutted trail.
The way was little-trafficked, and oftentimes the knights were obliged to stop and make sure they hadn’t wandered off of it. The branches in the track, too, were often indistinct, but Graid took his time, and every fork in the trail took the left. The terrain remained heavily wooded and grew steadily hillier. A light mist hung in the air, and the forest canopy overhead gave the haze a greenish glow. Ahead, Graid could see the track growing quickly steeper as it wound up a hillock, ending at a tumbledown pile of stone covered with ivy, creepers, and other greenery.
Peering at the pile, Graid realized that he was looking at the ruins of an ancient tower, once constructed of cyclopean blocks of stone, now smashed and eroded. The pile that remained could only barely attest to what was once a grand fortification. A trace of woodsmoke curled up out of the weed-choked pile.
Dismounting and leaving their horses with Gilmere’s squire, Graid and Gilmere made their way up the hillside, feet slipping a couple times. Surmounting the hill, the knights looked down into the exposed basement of the ancient tower.
A rough frame of wicker and living ivy blocked the sun, as well as a clearer view into the depths of the basement. Smoke was trailing up through the wicker, an unwholesome smell traveling on the wisps. Graid pointed at an ancient, worn set of stairs leading down. He and Gilmere descended the slick steps. About halfway down, a squeaky voice called out.
“Good sir knights, come down, come down, come down to my fine, fine, oh so fine hall! Be welcome here, be welcome! My hearth offers welcome to those the lady has sent!”
Graid and Gilmere, reaching the bottom of the stairs, stood in a smoky chamber.
“Welcome, Sir Graid, reaver of foes, anointed slayer of wyrms!”
Through the smoke, hunched over the fire, squatted an old sack of bones known as the Skinny Man. Were he to stand, Graid estimated, he would be nearly as tall as a giant. His bony knees were tucked up near his broad shoulders. Cavernously thin, the Skinny Man looked less healthy than some corpses.
Casting his gaze around, Graid could make out many shadowy niches and piles that held a riotous variety of objects: golden lamps, animal pelts, skulls, gourds, weapons, bottles, jars - there was more junk here than could be counted or catalogued, it seemed.
“We’ve come to ask you a favor,” said Graid.
“Not so often it is that I get visited by such fine gentlemen. But then I suppose it is rare fine friends find such sad straights. Your little old lordling has an unwelcome visitor in his hall - or is it the other way ‘round? Does the unwelcome lord have a little visitor in his old hall? Maybe soon! I know what you think and who you want to help. Then: what precious thing have you for Old Skinny, eh?”
“I have many items here that the lady has sent to present to you,” said Graid, as Gilmere laid the box out and opened it up.
“Ooh!” cooed Old Skinny. Waddling around the fire on his haunches and knuckles, he began to paw through the contents of the box. “Hm, what do we have here?” he muttered to himself. “Junk!” he exclaimed, throwing a gold goblet aside. “Meh! Little here to catch my eye...o-ho!” He pulled the necklace from the box, twirling it his fingers and giggling to himself. He then flashed the knights a parody of a smile.
“Oh good sir, sir! Would such a bauble lure a lady wife to my bed, you think?”
“Most definitely,” said Graid, his voice cracking, blinking rapidly, a smile frozen on his face. The Skinny Man tossed the pearls down with a snort. Pawing around some more, he next pulled out the relic box with the finger bone. Sniffing at the box, he began to visibly salivate.
“Sweet, lovely, oh so charming morsel! Such a treat for one tiny lordling! The deal is done! But place it here!” The Skinny Man, with his long, gangly arm, retrieved a stone bowl and held it out. Nodding encouragingly, he watched as Graid opened the reliquary and withdrew the finger bone. The bone clattered into the bowl, dancing around. Graid had seen this sort of bowl before: it was a mortar, used for grinding things in kitchens.
Quickly, the Skinny Man produced a pestle and merrily began breaking the bone down in the mortar, first into chunks, and then, with alarming speed, into a fine, pulverized powder. The powder was poured into a jar full of liquid, which Old Skinny quickly knocked back.
All was quiet for a moment as Skinny sat back, a satisfied expression on his face. He then loosed a terrific belch.
“Sweet, sweet, sweet that was! And well worth a little story. A little bone, a little story! Here’s what you needs must do: speak you with the key keeper at Old Wandlebury - your kind call’t ‘Cam’s Bridge’ or somesuch these days. ‘Tis on the far side of my cousin’s hills,” he said, gesturing towards the north.
“Ask him nice to tell you the old tale. He’ll know what that is, I daresay, though he might not like telling it. Act as you would when you hear the tale’s end. It should be clear enough from that. Look to be given what you do not want. Take it and be glad enough of it. Take the gory thing, though it serves no son of Adam happily. Give it to him you would save, and let him on about his business.” The Skinny Man let go with a small belch to punctuate the end of the tale.
Thanking Old Skinny profusely, the knights hastened from his dwelling. “Have you ever seen the like of that?” asked Gilmere once they were back above ground, breathing fresh air.
“Never,” said Graid.
Graid surmised that the Skinny Man must be referring to the town of Cambridge, laying to the north of the Gogmagog Hills. Mounting their horses, they set off again, riding through woods that had a distinct air of the untouched eldritch. A terrible sense of foreboding closed in as they rode along the narrow trail and darkness began to close in. No sounds save the clopping of hooves and the jangle of mail could be heard.
That is until, after a couple hours on the trail, Graid started at the sound of a nearby growl. The knights’ horses began to whicker and whinny in panic, even the trained chargers. The growl turned into a great roar and Graid turned his head, seeing a mighty lion prowling down the hillside, low to the ground, prepared to spring. Graid hefted his spear, calling out. “Gilmere, have courage!”
“Yes, uncle! For glory!” said Gilmere, also couching his lance.
The knights dug in spurs and drove their horses up the slope. Gilmere got there first, his lance piercing the side of the great cat, which twisted around the point, hissing. Then the lion was in among them - a claw raked over Graid’s leg, crushing his thigh against this horse’s side before the claws, catching on a piece of plate armor, pulled Graid from the saddle entirely!
Quickly, Graid rolled to his feet, drawing his sword as he thought about the importance of this quest for the man who had so generously hosted him. Graid moved in close, keeping his shield well in front and hacking at the lion’s face as Gilmere, now also armed with a sword, hacked down from the back of his horse at the lion’s back. Graid’s blows were largely ineffective, but kept the beast distracted long enough for Gilmere to land a telling blow. With a monstrous shriek of pain, the lion sprang forward - not at Graid, but over him - and off into the woods.
“Thanks, nephew,” Graid breathed, lifting his visor.
Despite the gathering gloom, the knights decided to press on, not wanting to linger in these woods any longer. Fortunately, it was only a little further down the trail before the forest began to give to way to cleared fields. The sun blazed red on the western horizon and its fading light glinted off the Cam River in a valley far below.
The trail turned into a more trafficked road as it passed through small manor holdings. The town of Cambridge could be made out, bestriding the Cam, its eponymous bridge visible even from a goodly distance. Much closer to, however, ran a small stream, spanned by a much more modest bridge. A pavilion tent stood at the bridge, a knight’s banner flapping from the central tentpole. Graid could see several squires and pages bustling about, then caught sight of an armored knight riding up across a field towards the tent, his shield bearing the same arms as the banner. Indeed, his heraldry was displayed not just on his shield, but on his surcoat and on his horse’s long caparison. Graid recognized the arms as belonging to the Lord of Cambridge.
“Grammercy, good knight!” called the lord as he rode up to the bridge, saluting. “I offer you food, a change of mounts, jousting lances, whatever you may need!”
“What we most need is to speak with the key keeper - it is a matter of grave urgency!” said Graid, returning the lord’s salute.
“Well then, you are in luck, for I am the key keeper! I am Sir Giles, Lord of Cambridge. However, I have taken an oath to a fair maiden not to engage in conversation with any strange knights until they have assayed a challenge of their choice. I care not the nature of the challenge, save it be proper and honorable. But please, by St. James, no riddles!”
“How about a joust, then?” asked Graid.
“Certainly, good knight! What are your terms, exactly?”
“Single pass, for love,” said Graid. Sir Giles agreed, and they rode out onto the field, hefting their lances.
After a quick salute, they put spur to horse and charged at each other. Graid’s lance hit squarely, his rebated lance shattering. Sir Giles went flying from his saddle, hitting the ground hard. As Graid wheeled around, the Lord of Cambridge was still trying to get to his feet, his squires running over to help.
“Zounds, that was a mighty blow, good sir!” said Giles as he regained his footing, Graid riding up.
“Thank you! Now, if we could - “
“No! Now I must challenge your companion as well!” said Giles. Gilmere’s choice was a poetry composition, and it went well for him - Gilmere wrote the best poem by common assent.
“You have both done very well,” said Giles, “and I would be happy to host you at my hall, as it is now well past dark.”
Leaving his squires to break camp, Giles led Graid and Gilmere into the valley and through the old Roman walls of Cambridge, then along its wide central avenue, receiving greetings and salutations from the few citizens still out and about at this time of day. Cambridge was built upon a hill overlooking the highest navigable point on the river, and Sir Giles’ modest but strongly-built castle stood atop the point of the hill, offering a lovely view of town and country.
In his hall, Sir Giles saw to it that Graid and Gilmere were offered a chance to wash up and dine on fine food and drink. Over the third course, Giles finally got back around to Graid’s request.
“You wanted to speak with me, then?”
“Yes, indeed, good sir. It is a most unpleasant matter, I must say. We were told to ask you about the ‘old tale’.” A pewter tankard clattered to the ground behind the knights, dropped by a passing squire at the mention of those words. Giles grew pale. “The only reason I would ask,” Graid hastened to add, “is to assist us with a matter of extreme importance.”
“Very well. Old chamberlain! Tell us the tale.”
At that, a wizened old man stepped forth from the eaves of the great hall.
“Truly, there is a story not often heard. Unlucky it is, I think, for it to be told, except for the most valorous of men. Brave you are to ask for it. Chills sit poorly on even the stoutest backs, after all.”
After a lengthy preamble, the chamberlain settled into the main gist of the story: “It was said by my elders, all wiser than I, that when the full moon is low and yellow in the sky and the loons air their plaintive cries, a man could test himself against certain perils, as men may see what they cannot at other times. For it is then that the moon’s light reveals our nearest hills for more than hills only - her luminance shines down and shows the lay and plan of an ancient castle.
“It is a level place, all ringed with mounds that once were walls, and moats, ditches, and embankments now lost to us. In that ancient outline, there is a single gap that was once the gateway to the hold. Clearly is it revealed on nights when the moon hangs low and round. Within, said those who raised me, lies a challenge for any brave knight. Whosoever puts on harness and rides through the moon-limned gate into an open place with lance in hand may find an opponent there. When inside the ancient walls he must call out loudly: ‘Knight to knight, come forth to fight!’ Revealed before him is a knight in full harness like himself. Then the challenge may take place, but only if the challenger enters the castle alone. Else the adversary will not appear. However this is, the knight’s companions may await without, in witness of the combat. Thus was I told by my forebears, but never have I seen it for myself, for men shy clear of that old place, where the old ones are said to rest forever.”
“Where is this place?”
“Just yonder, back towards the hills.”
“Then we must away, for the moon is full tonight!” said Graid, standing quickly. “Your hospitality is much appreciated, my lord, but we must go.”
As quickly as they could, Graid and Gilmere rearmed and mounted up, riding quickly out of Cambridge. As they made their way back towards the hills, they could see something in the moonlight that had not been there earlier: a castle shone with silver light, its battlements illuminated and ghostly. Great earthworks surrounded the walls, which were crumbling even in their ghostly state.
Passing through a gap in the works, the knights could see the gate through the walls leading to a wide, grassy field within - a massive, still courtyard. Wordlessly, Graid flicked the reins of his horse and rode forward, Gilmere’s wishes of Godspeed and good luck following him.
Graid could feel his horse tense and shaking as he rode into the silent courtyard. Not a breeze stirred, and his voice rang out as he called, “Knight to knight, come forth to fight!” Scarcely had his call faded when a mounted knight seemed to materialize out of thin air. His armor was black and chased with silver accents. The knight’s huge black horse snorted and, without any preamble or salutation, the black knight lowered his lance and charged forward!
Recovering quickly, Graid dug in his spurs and lowered his own lance, fired by his desire to see this quest through. He guided his nervous horse straight and true, holding his lance steady. The black knight tucked his shield up to receive Graid’s charge, but he was not prepared for such a telling blow, as the impact nearly unseated him.
The black knight wheeled quickly around and immediately charged again. Graid met him, and once more got in the telling hit, this time shattering his lance on the knight’s breastplate, leaving about a foot of wood in the knight’s torso as it went crashing to the ground. It was a lance blow that should have killed a normal man, yet the black knight slowly rose to its feet, using its lance as a steadying crutch. The great black horse was prancing around the enclosure, whinnying. Graid spared it a brief glance, but it nearly cost him his life - in that instant, the black knight, switching grips on its lance, hurled the weapon straight at Graid’s head!
Without even realizing it, Graid’s lightning reflexes knocked the thrown lance away with his own broken shaft, sending the deadly missile into the turf. After such a display of unchivalrous behavior from the black knight, Graid lowered his lance and charged, nostrils flared in outrage as the black knight drew steel. The blunt, frayed end of the lance hit squarely on the helmed face of the black knight, staving it in and knocking the head off entirely, sending it flying across the field!
Discarding his bloody, blunted lance, Graid rode over to the black knight’s lance, which was stuck point-down in the ground, and took it up. An unwholesome tingle ran up Graid’s arm as he seized the lance.
Emerging from the courtyard of the ruined castle, Graid spotted Gilmere, about 100 yards distant, leading the black knight’s stallion by the reins.
“Uncle! I have caught this fine steed!” It was indeed the finest horse Graid had ever seen: a midnight black destrier in top condition.
“You are free to take it, nephew. If you had seen its rider, you would perhaps not be as keen.”
“Well, uncle, I actually thought that such a beast as this might be just what you needed to take you swiftly back to Grately Manor. I think it would speed you on your way much better than our own.”
Graid thought for a moment. “I think you’re right. I shall venture it.” Leaving his own charger with Gilmere, he mounted the black destrier, strange lance still in hand. Barely had he touched the horse’s flanks with his spurs than he was rocketing off through the countryside, much faster than a normal horse could ever manage. Every step the horse took seemed to take Graid over miles of countryside at a stride as he held on for dear life, the cold night air whipping his face and numbing his hands.
Over hill, dale, wood, field, and village, Graid saw the countryside pass beneath him. With one last leap, the horse came to a great shuddering stop outside Grately. It could not have been more than a half-hour, and the arrival came just in time: Graid saw Sir Ferren, moving stiffly yet with great purpose, emerging from the manor house in harness, ready to fight the ghost knight again.
Breathing hard, Graid slipped off the black horse and ran up to Sir Ferren. “Here, sir, take this lance!” he called. Ferren continued walking forward, oblivious. Frustrated, Graid physically swapped out Ferren’s weapons, replacing his sword with the black knight’s lance.
Graid stepped back as a charnel smell washed over him, a groaning sound rising up from the ground. The ghost knight had materialized from the darkness. Again they engaged in combat, the aged lord and the immortal fiend. Yet this time, when Sir Ferren landed a blow, even though it was ever so slight, the ghost knight recoiled. There was a distinct sucking sound, as of water going down a drain, and then the ghost knight was no more. The smell lifted and the groans receded and only a smoky vapor marked the phantom’s former place. Ferren dropped to the ground, unconscious.
“What? What is this?” exclaimed Sir Ferren’s squires, who had been watching from the manor doorway as usual. They ran out, looking about in disbelief. Lady Zoe was close behind. Wife and squires knelt by their master.
“He lives still!” said Zoe. “Quickly, take him to his bed! Sir Graid! What of the ghost?”
“He has vanished, my lady, and never to return, I daresay.”
“Vanished? Impossible!” said Zoe, smiling in spite of herself.
“It was with that lance that Sir Ferren defeated the ghost.”
“This is beyond my wildest imaginings of magic! But what did the Skinny Man take?”
“The finger bone. But Gilmere has the chest with the rest of your belongings.”
“How did you make it back here so quickly?”
“I am not sure, myself. This steed...brought me. It’s bewitched.”
“Much deviltry about. But I suppose if it saved my husband’s life, it was worth it.”
As Lady Zoe went to tend to her husband, Graid went over to the horse to examine it. As he touched the horse’s rippling flesh, he had a strange flashback - disturbing visions of otherworldly beauties, dangerous and seductive. Was it a memory? Or a nightmare?
Shaking his head, Graid circled the horse. Its midnight black pelt spoke of an animal from beyond the veil. This was a creature woven of darkness. Almost instinctually, Graid realized that this creature could never see the sun. Even the slightest sliver of day would destroy it. He knew what he had to do: slipping the bridle off the horse’s muzzle, he whispered into its ear: “Go into the night, where you belong.”
The horse gratefully nuzzled Graid in return, then trotted off, disappearing far sooner than it otherwise should have, even with its dark coat.
Exhausted, Graid stumbled into the hall. Before seeking a warm bed of his own, he dragged himself up to Sir Ferren’s chambers, finding the lord of the manor still unconscious, lying abed. Zoe was at his side, mopping his brow with a sponge soaked in vinegar. She smiled up at Graid.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, smiling. Graid bowed his way out and was downstairs, passed out in the hall, within minutes. The next day, of course, Graid was feted as the guest of honor...and the next day, and the next. For three days straight, Graid was given full run of the manor. He and Lady Alis whiled away many a pleasant hour in the hall, Graid playing his harp as Alis sang, or else exchanging stories and riddles, or playing chess. Alis could not keep her eyes off of Graid, and Zoe seemed much less protective of her daughter.
On the third day, Gilmere returned with horses and squire in tow, bearing the strongbox. That evening, Ferren made his first appearance at the feast, looking much like the Ferren of the year before. Perhaps a bit more careworn, a few more grays, but clearly much improved. Over the feast, Ferren revealed that he could remember very little of the pervious year, but he thanked Graid profusely, as Zoe had told him the whole story by this point.
“Shame, two years in a row I’ve had to cancel a tournament!”
“Aye, maybe they’re not for you,” said Graid in jest.
“Indeed. I think next year we try a wedding instead?” Ferren said, a gleam in his eye.
“But you’re already married - oh!” said Graid. Ferren laughed heartily. Graid blushed, then flashed Alis a quick smile. “I think so, my lord. I think so.”
Graid and Gilmere stayed another week at Grately before departing for Broughton. As they rode back, they talked of Graid’s battle against the black knight.
“I had heard tell of how you savaged those foul knights who dared try kidnap our queen,” said Gilmere, “but seeing you knock that knight’s block off - wow! It’s like you’ve got a caged lion inside you!”
Graid laughed. “Well put, nephew. Perhaps I shall add a lion to my coat of arms...”
If you liked what you read here and want to read more, please consider a small donation to help fund completion and collection of the entire Solo GPC project...