The previous year having been so eventful, Graid was pleased to have a quiet, uneventful winter season to relax back at Broughton and prepare for his impending nuptials. The final renovations were made to Broughton Hall, and a date was set for the wedding. He also determined to acquire a permanent squire, and, with Sir Ferran's advice, selected a likely page from among his future in-laws' court at Grately. It was the son of Ferran's oldest and most trusted esquire, an eager and enthusiastic lad named Dyrn.
All these arrangements were made under a pall of gloom and worry, however: despite efforts to keep things under wraps, news had come out of Camelot over the winter that the High King himself had turned up missing! Furthermore, according to Nimue, Lady of the Lake, the disappearance had seemed to have been due to the work of fell sorcery: she identified ritual materials left behind in Arthur's quarters, and tracks of strange beasts had been turned up by foresters near to Camelot. Even worse, other odd sightings had grown steadily more common throughout the land over the course of the winter - with the king missing, the influence of the Other Side seemed to be seeping into the world with greater and greater insistence.
Practically the entire Round Table - even Kay the Seneschal - was about the countryside, searching for Arthur. With the coming of the spring and still no sign of the king, Guenevere had even put up a reward for any who might rescue her missing husband. It was said that Camelot was overrun with an army of soothsayers and mystics, each professing to have clues as to Arthur's whereabouts.
|“I see nothing here. But I'm afraid it's splitsville for Delta Burke and Major Dad.”|
The first step on his road to greatness would be marriage and a family, of course, and to that end he set his worries about the fate of King Arthur aside, knowing that great knights were doing their best to find the recalcitrant king, and endeavored to have a wonderful wedding in spite of the gloomy national zeitgeist.
Besides, Graid knew that he stood to gain much from this alliance with Sir Ferran's clan. The knights of Grately were fellow borderers, situated north of Broughton but also on the border with Silchester, whose old rivalries were not entirely forgotten by the local gentry. Also like Broughton, Grately was sited upon a major trade route, this one leading to Levcomagus; the manors that came with Lady Alis's dowry were prosperous with trade. Finally, Ferran's kin owned manors whose lands abutted those of Graid's own family. This alliance would create a sort of sub-realm that stretched along almost the entirety of Salisbury's eastern border!
The wedding came in April, and clear weather prevailed. As was increasingly customary, it was to be a ceremony under the auspices of a priest, and arrangements had been made to exchange vows not at Broughton Hall, but in the stone church down in the village. Furthermore, the Bishop of Salisbury himself would be administering the vows.
Sir Gilmere and the aged Sir Ulprus stood as groomsmen, helping Graid prepare as he donned his finest clothes. Lady Alis had arrived with her parents three days prior, and had prepared for the wedding in separate chambers. Graid first met her in the courtyard of the manor house, where the whole party was then to proceed down to the church. She had donned a fine blue dress of silk and satin, and had an entourage of giggling female relations who were just putting the final blossoms into a woven crown of flowers in her golden hair. Graid smiled and took a position at Alis's side as the procession into the village began. As the wedding party walked, everyone was on the lookout for omens. There was much joking and laughter about supposed ill signs, but none were actually spotted, good or bad.
Before the front doors of the church, Alis took up position to Graid's left as the Bishop stepped forth, intoning blessings. Then, as had been rehearsed, Graid and Alis made formal promises of dower and dowry. Graid stood to gain the income of two manors from this wedding. On the other hand, were he to break his dower, Sir Ferran would only recoup two libra of income - such was the inequity of dower and dowry.
The bride's father stepped forward and formally gave Alis away to Graid, and the young couple both indicated their acceptance of the bond, exchanging wedding rings (to be worn on the thumb) as a physical symbol of this agreement. At this point, the village priest indicated everyone should proceed into the church for a Mass to bless and celebrate the union.
As he stood in the church, listening to the Bishop drone on in Latin, Graid looked upon Alis and felt genuine feelings for her begin to swell in his heart. He had felt so distant and drained since his "lost year," when he had trespassed to realms only half-remembered in nightmares. His health hadn't been the same since, but this flaring of love for Alis was a welcome wash of human feelings and emotion, at least. Sadly, it wouldn't prove strong enough to drive away the gnawing ennui.
After the church ceremony, it was back to the manor hall for a great feast. Graid and Alis sat at the high table, of course, sharing sips from a goblet of spiced wine. Every guest offered a toast in turn, guaranteeing much wine was drunk. There was dancing, there feasting, there was much merry-making - sometimes a bit too much, as more than one knight had to be carted off, pages cleaning vomit in his wake. Each guest had brought a small cake, which had been stacked into a pile. The culmination of the ceremony was Graid and Alis attempting to lean over the pile of cakes to exchange a kiss, which they only just managed to do despite their inebriation. In a fit of pique, Graid also promised to tithe a fifth of his income to the Bishop of Salisbury in the coming year.
Finally, well after dusk, Graid and Alis rose from their table for the last time and departed for the bedchamber, followed by their groomsmen, bridesmaids, and guests, all attempting to snatch pieces from Alis's dress, leaving the lovely gown in tatters. As Graid and Alis headed for separate side chambers, the wedding bed was prepared and blessed by the village priest. With much advice and bawdy jesting, Graid was helped into his nightgown by his groomsmen, then escorted to the bedchamber, where Alis was waiting, covers pulled up to her chin and grinning bashfully. With a final salutation and cheer, the guests departed and Graid and Alis spent their first night together as husband and wife.
Despite the great joy brought by the wedding festivities, the wasting feeling within Graid lingered still. So, too, did the nightmare visions that drove sleep from his mind. That night, as he lay in his marital bed, Alis dozing beside him, he brooded. This curse seemed to have a power from beyond mortal realms. Perhaps it required a similarly supernatural solution? Last year, Sir Gilmere had told Graid of a tournament that was coming up this summer at the Castle of the Maidens in Lothian; he knew it to be the center of a powerful group of enchantresses. He also thought of his older sister, Queen Meleri. There were persistent rumors of her possessing arcane and occult knowledge beyond the ken of mere men. One of these wise women might hold the answer to his problem!
The next morning, Graid led Alis from the bedchamber and to the solar, with its south-facing window that Graid had prepared as a "morning-after" gift: it was a stained-glass design depicting an oak tree with a rising sun behind it. This gift was then followed by a mid-morning repast in the great hall, with Graid's new squire attending him. Many of the wedding guests were wincing with hangovers from the previous night's festivities, and several shouted angrily when the hall doors were flung wide, banging open. The Bishop of Salisbury, dressed in full regalia and followed by the village priest, was striding in, and he did not look pleased.
"What is the trouble, your excellency?" asked Graid, rising from his table and circling around to kiss the prelate's sacred ring.
"It is an outrage against decent Christian values, sir!" stormed the bishop.
"Who!? What!?" said Graid, looking about for an explanation. The bishop was too flustered to speak, so the priest took the lead.
"Well...it would seem that word of this wedding, having spread far and wide over the countryside, has attracted a group of...actors. They are down in the village and are preparing to put on their ungodly entertainments."
Graid tried not to smile. "I do not see the harm," he said. "They are merely here to help us celebrate this festive occasion, and all that is good in the world. I think we should allow them to put on a play." He leaned in close. "Your excellency will remember, of course, the tithe I have promised." He spoke up again. "And I shall venture down to the village to meet these folks and vouchsafe their character before allowing their production to go ahead."
Grumbling, the bishop assented to Graid's plan. After finishing their meal, Graid and Alis headed down to the village and found the peasantry in a festive mood - they had been granted three days off of work to mark the wedding celebration, and there was much revelry and good cheer. The lord and lady of Broughton were welcomed with hearty salutations and good wishes.
Just outside the village, Graid spied a large ox cart which was in the process of being converted into a stage by a gang of strangers. A juggler was idly making his way about, tossing knives in the air, as a trio of musicians piped and drummed. Already, a small crowd had gathered, taking seats in the long grass near the stage, laughing and drinking.
One of the men near the stage, a short fellow with a receding hairline and carefully trimmed beard, came over. "You must be the lord of this manor, sir," he said with a flourishing bow. "Allow me to introduce my troupe!" he said, and on cue the others ceased working and assumed a variety of stagey poses.
Graid was simultaneously impressed by both their professionalism and their wankerishness.
"We have played at the courts of Camelot, Cornwall, Lothian, and Orkney!" the man said, arms flung wide. "Every pennath and king and queen between here and Rome. And now we have come to play for you good people!" A few peasants raised a drunken, ragged cheer. "Do you have any special requests, m'lord?" he inquired of Graid.
"Well, we are celebrating my marriage today, so I think something with a happy ending?" said Graid, smiling at Alis.
"Oh, I think that can be arranged. Our repertoire includes many of the classic Roman pantomimes," said the little man. As he said this, Graid spied one of the troupe unpacking a giant, papier-mâché phallus. Graid laughed.
"Eh, classic is good. Just see it isn't too raunchy. My in-laws are here." he said, dropping a few silver pennies into the manager's hand.
The play that was put on was actually a Greek comedy entitled The Frogs. At noon, both peasantry and gentry gathered in the green to watch. A bench had been carried out for Graid, Alis, and the in-laws to sit; everyone else stood behind. It was a fine production, and Graid took to heart the play's central theme of the importance of Honesty.
The players stayed for the duration of the holiday. There was no more grumbling from priestly quarters, and all was well that ended well. Soon the guests departed and life got back to normal. Graid commissioned a herald to design a new coat of arms for his family, one that impaled the arms of Lady Alis with his own.
In July, most welcome news arrived: King Arthur had been found! The suspicions of magic had been well-founded - he had been kidnapped by a Saxon witch named Annowre. In the end, it was Sir Kay of all people who had managed to rescue the king, even where such luminaries as Lancelot and Gawaine had failed and fallen into the witch's dungeon alongside their king. A rare moment of glory for the Seneschal.
Word from Camelot held that the king, now safely returned, seemed possessed of a new lease on life by his brush with danger, an enthusiasm that had infected the whole court. The postponed tournament season was back on, and the Tournament of the Castle of Maidens was set to go off as scheduled in September. Lady Alis declined the trip up north, but Sir Gilmere was as ready as ever for adventure, and he and Graid spent many an evening discussing travel plans and speculating about the tournament.
A fortnight before the tournament, Graid and Gilmere departed Broughton. Graid gave his wife a kiss, sad to be leaving her for the first time. He and his nephew then rode up through Grately, through Silchester, and on to London, where they boarded a small cog and set sail for Din Eidyn, a town far to the north, situated on the south bank of the Forth estuary. A mighty stone keep on a massive promontory could be seen from the piers and wharves of the town of Leith as they docked - the Castle of the Maidens.
Riding into Din Eidyn, Graid felt a bit relieved that Alis had not come with him. This small town had a decidedly rough edge to it, and the native knights looked hard-bitten and thuggish. Along the high road into town, Graid witnessed two such knights engaged in a fist-fight, and there was much shouting and cavorting generally.
Graid encountered many other foreign knights, as well. Clearly this was to be one of the top tournaments of the year. He stabled his horses and found lodging in a guesthouse; he had four days before the tournament started. In that time, he figured he could perhaps arrange to see Lady Eleri, mistress of the Castle of the Maidens. After three days of lingering around the halls and chambers of the keep on the hill, Graid was finally granted an audience with the enchantress.
Her skin was bronzed and she wore a crown of oak leaves on her head. Her voice was breathy and otherworldly. "Why have you sought me out, sir knight?" she queried, her hands perched daintily on the armrests of her throne.
"My lady, I have an odd request of you. Some time ago, I was afflicted with a strange sort of madness. I remember very little from that time, but ever since I have been plagued with dreams of another realm, a queer longing for a place I'm not sure I've ever been. My sleepless nights have been taking a terrible toll on my health. I have heard of your greatness and wisdom, and I thought to seek you out for relief from this terrible condition."
"It does indeed seem like a terrible affliction. Let me think on this. When the tournament is over, come back and speak to me."
"Thank you, my lady," said Graid, as he bowed himself out of the hall.
Optimistic that Lady Eleri would be able to help him, Graid practically ran back down the hill to gather his things for the tournament. A great stretch of land had been cleared outside town, near a hill said to be sacred to the god Nodens, and Graid and Gilmere packed up and headed out to pitch their tents, along with several hundred other knights.
Among that crowd of knights, Graid spotted his old friend, Idain, the lady squire of Lindsay. She too had won her spurs, and she now bore the arms of Kenilworth Castle, where many female knights served.
"Good to see you here, old friend!" said Graid, striding over. Idain smiled and clasped his hand.
"And you, sir! I have heard of your adventures with the Ghost Knight of Gravely Manor!" She looked around. "Quite a rough and tumble crowd, isn't it?"
"Indeed. Not even a helm show! And the armor these knights wear - not nearly as fine as the harness of the south."
"Careful how you talk about these northern knights!" chided Idain. "They are a prideful lot. And they say most of the Orkney clan has turned out. They brought their mother with them."
"Queen Margawse?" Graid whispered.
"Indeed, yes. And Sir Mordred and Sir Agravaine...the whole coterie."
Suddenly, a group of whooping knights came thundering through, wild young men racing their chargers bareback through the campgrounds. A tent was uprooted by one of the passing horses, and the racing knights were followed by many shouted oaths and curses. Graid and Idain grinned at each other again.
"Watch yourself out there," he cautioned, and they retired to their respective tents to make ready.
The next day was the first of the two-day joust. Graid entered, but was knocked out in the quarter-finals, albeit only with only minor bumps and bruises. In the end, he was unseated by Sir Mordred. The conclusion of the joust saw wild, unbridled celebration - drunken knights carrying on, fighting, chasing camp whores, singing loudly. Graid mostly kept to the area around his tent, sending Dyrn off to bed after a single cup of wine. With his squire snoozing, Graid then set off to find the party. He found a large bonfire had been set out in the field. Mordred and Agravaine were the center of attention, and they were having a loud, drunken conversation as Graid joined the crowd.
"Well, that sorceress certainly used a lot of magical power to get the king out of Camelot," Mordred was opining. "That's what magic's best used for: escapes and surprises. I should know, with a mother like mine. Magic is powerful, but it is short-lived. Annowre used a lot of power to get the king away from Camelot, but she was weak by the end and vulnerable. She couldn't protect herself. Magic falters easily."
"Hear, hear!" piped Agravaine.
Graid furrowed his brow, disturbed by the thought of wizards and sorceresses using their infernal powers to meet their unfathomable ends. Others seemed to be having similar thoughts, as the talk of magic had brought a chill to the gathering that even the bonfire's flames could not dispel. Graid stepped closer to the fire to warm up, and Mordred spotted him.
"Lurking in the shadows, Sir Graid?"
"I have only just arrived and wanted to warm myself."
"Well then, by all means do so. You jousted well."
"That's high praise coming from you."
"Of course, I can say that since I defeated you." A ripple of laughter passed through the crowd of sycophants. "In all seriousness, I'm putting together my team for the melee tomorrow. I could use an eager young knight such as yourself. Do you accept?"
"I do!" said Graid, flattered.
"We'll see what you're made of, then."
"I can't wait to prove myself, sir," said Graid with a slight bow and a smile. Mordred's squire handed Graid a large goblet of spiced wine, and the evening passed with great merriment. There was much brotherly ribbing and cutting wit, sprinkled liberally with talk of various knights' deeds from around the lands. The only knights who seemed to be held in universally low esteem were Lancelot and any knight from the de Gales clan - talk turned dark and ugly whenever any of them came up in conversation. "Whoever killed King Pellinore did us all a great service," muttered Agravaine at one point, "but they didn't go far enough, in my opinion." Still, it was generally a good time.
"Good group of guys," Graid mumbled to himself as he staggered back to his tent, long after the moon had set.
The third day was the grand melee. Graid fought on Mordred's team, as planned, and comported himself well. "For Arthur!" he yelled, when his team took the prize. Afterwards, Mordred came by Graid's tent.
"You fought well today," he said. "Very well. Just remember: King Arthur spouts a lot of words about brotherhood and chivalry, but at the end of the day, we're all responsible for our own individual successes." Graid nodded and Mordred left.
The next morning, having broken camp and returned to town, Graid headed back up the hill to the Castle of the Maidens. This time, he was ushered in relatively quickly and found Lady Eleri again seated in her massive throne.
"What you seek is magic of memory, sorcery that will wipe your dreams clean," she intoned. "You are in two different worlds at the moment, and must leave behind your memories of that other place, memories you don't even know you have."
"How can I do that?"
"I have consulted the oracles, and they have told me that the answer lies in a play you saw earlier this year."
"Keep that in mind as you journey on," she said.
"Thank you, my lady," said Graid, and he once again bowed himself out of the hall.
The following day, Graid and Gilmere boarded a southbound cog. They spoke of their experience in the tournament and of plans for next year. By the time they were riding through Silchester, the peasants were beginning to bring in the harvest. Between Grately and Monkston, on the narrow forest track through the Harewood on the way to Broughton, Graid spotted a frog sitting on a fallen log just a little ways into the woods. He would have thought nothing of it had it not been for Lady Eleri's words. Graid reined in his horse. Gilmere rode on a few feet before noticing, then also stopped and twisted in his saddle. "What is it, uncle?"
"Wait just a moment, Gilmere," said Graid, sliding out of his saddle. He approached the frog. Beyond the log was a small, boggy pond, overgrown with lily pads and algae. Next to the frog on the log sat a small, thimble-sized golden cup. Carefully, so as not to startle the frog, Graid reached for the cup. He could see that it was full with a dark liquid not unlike wine.
The frog did not move or flinch at Graid's approach, but rather sat calmly watching him and the cup. Graid hesitated for a half-second, then tossed the cup's contents into his mouth. It was barely a droplet of water, not unlike catching a fat raindrop on his tongue.
Once Graid had drained the cup, the frog began to croak.
"Rrrribbit. Rrrrrbbit. Rrrrrbeee-it. Rrrrbeeee-it known that I am Sir Longhop. Pleased to make a fellow knight's acquaintance," the frog croaked. Graid was stunned into silence as Sir Longhop bowed to him. "I bear a message from the King of Puddlejump, whose domain ye pass through. He offers you the hospitality of his fortress and courrrr-it."
"I accept," said Graid, completely bemused.
"I will wait here until you are ready."
Graid returned to the trail. "Gilmere, I know this sounds odd, but there's something I must take care of. Make camp here and await my return." As Gilmere and his squire set up camp, Graid got out of his traveling clothes and into full armor, then ventured back to the log, leaving his squire Dyrn behind.
The frog turned and jumped off the log and into the shallow pool. Graid stepped over the trunk and sloshed in after, the hem of his surcoat quickly growing heavy with water, his armored feet sinking into thick mud.
The pond was part of a large marshy patch in the woods, and Graid was obliged to walk slowly behind Sir Longhop, who was leading him deeper into the trees. As they walked, Sir Longhop made conversation in his oddly throaty voice.
"Tell me of some of your recent adventures, sir knight," he said.
Graid spoke of the Ghost Knight, and of his victory as a squire at the Tournament of Kent, and of his recent experience at the Castle of the Maidens. As he talked, Graid slowly became aware that he was having to take longer strides to keep up with Sir Longhop, and that the water of the marsh, once only as high as his ankles, was now up to his waist. And it was at that point that he realized he had been growing progressively smaller until he was now about the same size as Sir Longhop!
No sooner had he had this startling realization than he saw, up ahead, the marshy ground give way to a larger pool, its surface covered with thick lily pads. The pool sat serenely under the boughs of a mighty elm tree. Many frogs stood about on the lily pads, all clustered around a frog of tremendous size. This great frog was wearing a golden crown and holding a scepter in one of its webbed hands. Other frogs were clearly guards, dressed in surcoats and wielding ceremonial glaives.
"Your highness, may I introduce Sir Graid!"
Graid stepped forward and bowed to the king.
"Welcome to my court. We will see to your every need and comfort while you are a guest here. May I present my lovely queen and my knights of renown."
Graid nodded and smiled at the various frogs as they stepped forward.
"We have heard of King Arthur and his knights, but none of the emissaries I have sent to his court have ever returned." Graid had a momentary vision of Sir Kay adding an emissary to a boiling pot of frog-leg soup and winced.
"I can send a message to the king on your behalf, if you'd like," Graid offered kindly.
"That would be most welcome. Come, we must commemorate your arrival with a great feast!"
Tables were brought out and Graid was seated at the king's side. A grand procession of frog delicacies were produced: worm pie, fish-egg soup, roasted snail, algal wine, and much more. As Graid did his best to politely refuse the food, a lady frog came by to talk to him, a delicate veil over her amphibian features. She batted her liquescent eyes at him, and he just as politely disengaged from her advances as well. After the feast, there was dancing. At one point, one of the frog knights, a Sir Flashtongue, bumped into Graid, knocking him over. Graid impressed the court with his gracious forgiveness of this gaffe.
The Frog King ended the feast with a toast to Sir Graid. "You have already very generously offered to take word of my court to Camelot. But there is one more request we might make of you, sir knight. It is why I sent Sir Longhop questing for a suitable champion, and he has done well to bring you to us.
"We have been most grievously vexed of late by a terrible flying monster. Your role in slaying a great beast has been related to us by Sir Longhop. I would ask a boon of you that you go forth and slay the beast that has so terrorized us. We will provide you a suitable mount and weapons to do this."
"It would be my honor, sire," said Graid to general applause and croaks of delight. As it was late in the day, Graid asked if he could rest the night and venture out in the morning. This request was granted, and Graid spent the evening sleeping in the boughs of the elm.
The next morning, Graid was provided a long reed spear and a riding turtle. The Frog King sent him forth with a warning: "Once you pass beyond the protection of the tree, you risk attack from the beast. Be on guard."
"Thank you, sire!" said Graid, flicking the reins of his mighty turtle. The turtle lurched forward and began swimming gracefully along the surface of the pond. Graid cast his eyes about. The skies were clear overhead, and a pleasant breeze rustled the leaves of the wood. Graid hadn't gone far when a shadow flashed across the water. Immediately, he thought of a dragon and his head whipped wildly around. Then he saw it: a great beastly bird, and it was descending towards him!
Fired by his passion for hospitality, Graid grimly set his lance. The great snapping beak reached for him, but Graid was faster, jabbing his spear up into the heron's long neck, piercing it straight through! The heron, grievously wounded, pinwheeled into the water, crying in pain.
Graid pulled the reins on his turtle, wheeling it around, and zipped forward, stabbing the sopping bird with his reed lance again. This time he drove the lance into the bird's head, killing it. The bird sank beneath the green waters of the marsh, leaving only a few dislodged feathers floating at the surface. Graid slipped down from the turtle's back into the deep water and, using his sword, beheaded the heron, and bore the severed head back to the Frog King's court.
There he was welcomed by the frogs as a conquering hero.
"Truly you are one of the greatest knights of Arthur's court. I offer you the hand of my daughter as thanks for your great deed," said the Frog King. Feeling a wave of relief, Graid begged off on the grounds that he was already married.
"Very well," said the Frog King, disappointed. "We cannot let you leave empty-handed. Here, take this elixir," he said, handing Graid a small gourd with a stopper at one end. "It is water drawn from the spring of Lethe, the River of Unmindfulness. It is of great use in soothing of the troubled mind, hm?"
"Thank you, sire."
"Go in peace, good Sir Graid."
Graid left the Frog King and his court waving from their lily-pad court. Slowly, as he walked back to the trail, the water level began to drop until it was once again only ankle deep - he was back to his usual size. Up ahead, he spotted his tent and Gilmere's among the trees.
"Uncle!" called Gilmere. He ran up to Graid, smiling in relief. "I was worried about you! Why are you all wet? Did you fall into the water? Here, come sit by the fire and dry off."
As Dyrn helped Graid out of his wet things, Gilmere listened to Graid's tale. It was so unbelievable that by the end Gilmere was still clearly unconvinced. "Are you sure you didn't just get drunk and wander off into the marshes, uncle? You wouldn't be the first, you know," he said, laughing. "A kingdom of frogs seems a bit...outrageous."
"I don't blame you for being skeptical, Gilmere. Still..." Graid reached into his pack and pulled out the gourd, which had grown with him. "How do you explain this?"
"Fair point. Are you going to drink it?"
"May as well," said Graid, unstoppering the bottle. He drank it down - it tasted of mineral water. Graid felt immediately light-headed and began losing sense of where he was, who he was. Only by keeping focused on Gilmere was he able to keep hold of his sense of self. He looked at his shield, propped against the log - that coat of arms reminded him of his father, of Lady Alis. The light-headedness passed and Graid, for the first time in years, felt fully alive again.
"Come, Gilmere. Let's go home."