Thursday, May 22, 2014

[Solo GPC] 543: The Hard Rock Tournament

It was an easy winter at Broughton Hall. The harvest had been good once again, and the granaries and cellars were full to bursting with provisions. What's more, Graid's exploits at Camelot the year before had boosted him to a new level of prominence in the kingdom. Had there been any free seats on the Round Table, he would have been a shoe-in. As the Edition 5.1 Pendragon rulebook puts it, with Graid surpassing 8,000 Glory this year he was now "known throughout all in Britain [as] one of the best in the land...and sits at the High Table in any court save Camelot."

[Such rapid advancement so early on in his career did give me pause, I must say. But Graid started out already well-known thanks to inheriting a huge chunk of Glory from his famous dad. This is typical of generational progression in KAP - each succeeding generation gets more and more of a leg up thanks to inherited Glory. Plus, I was beginning to appreciate how much more quickly Glory is accrued by an individual character in a single-player game, since Glory awards aren't split between a group. It's a nice reflexive mechanic, actually - it's tougher to get through adventures on your own, but you become a badass much more quickly, so it balances out in the end.]


Gossip over the winter mostly circled around the mad Sir Tristram, who was still missing after two years. The ladies excitedly talked about the newest fashions for both ladies and gents, and Earl Robert, after his visit to Camelot at Pentecost, debuted his own scandalously short cotehardie at the Yule feast at Sarum. As he was in his mid-40s and somewhat past his prime, this did not have the same sensational effect as Sir Tor's outfit had had. Nonetheless, it was generally agreed that a knight who had the body to pull it off would look especially handsome in the new patterns.

Graid had little concern for fashion and gossip, however. He was focused on home life, with his newborn and 13-month-old babies and his bee hives to tend to. As he wandered through his mellisarium, he often contemplated ghosts of the past. His father, yes. But also the great knights of the old days, the legendary days. When Arthur was young and rode into battle with Excalibur held on high. At his side would have galloped Gawaine and Lamorak, scions of two clans that now would just as soon tear themselves apart. And hadn't his sister Meleri, Queen of Norgales, been close to Lamorak? Yes, he was fairly certain he'd heard rumors to that effect...

With the spring thaw, Sir Graid answered a summons to Sarum to do his 90-days' service to the Earl. There was little going on this year, so Graid was put on garrison duty, which mainly consisted of riding patrols around the county, checking the borders, and so forth. He rode in the company of the aged Sir Jaradan, Marshall since Herringdale's death and the last remaining Salisbury knight from the time of Uther. When they weren't being troubled by peasants' problems, they talked of the old days - or rather, Jaradan talked and Graid listened.

It was on a chilly spring morning, as they rode between Vagon and Ebble near the boundary of the Collingbourne Wood, that their conversation was interrupted by a little ragged boy. He was dressed in homespun clothes that were fraying at the edges, and he held a simple, hand-carved wooden cup.

"Please, sir knight," he said, approaching Graid tentatively as he rode by. Graid stopped and looked down. "My mother is ill, and desperate thirsty. Would you be so kind as to fill my cup, that I may bring her a drink to quench her great thirst?" Graid called for Dyrn to bring up his cask of ale from the sumpter.

Graid began to pour the ale into the cup, which was little bigger than a tea mug. It should have topped off quickly, but instead it kept filling up! As the last drops dribbled from the cask, Graid, astounded, saw that the tiny cup was only half full. "What kind of witchcraft is this?" Graid muttered.

"Please, my mother is so thirsty."

Hesitating, Graid called for his other cask of ale. It took this whole cask to finally fill the cup to the brim. The boy thanked Graid and toddled off, carefully balancing the cup so that it wouldn't spill a drop. Unsettled, Graid remounted his horse and flicked the reins.

As he rode, he reflected on how it seemed that such strange occurrences were becoming ever more common. Also distressingly common: "challenge knights." It was all the rage these days for a knight to take a vow to guard a bridge, ford, or crossroads and defend it against all comers. It was so disruptive that King Arthur had had to issue a decree over the winter forbidding the practice on royal roads, but on side trails and paths, all bets were off. It wasn't long before Jaradan's patrol was running seriously behind schedule, so frequent were their delays at the hands of challenge knights. Still, it certainly helped Graid improve his jousting practice.


As Jaradan's party drew near to Du Plain, they spotted a party of knights riding from the east. Their banners fluttered colorfully from lances, their horses' caparisons were a riot of colors displaying a veritable all-star gallery of Round Table heraldry. The leader was plainly Sir Gawaine, and he saluted them upon his approach.

"Hail, good knights of Salisbury! Would you do us the great honor of escorting us to your Earl's court at your earliest convenience?" called Gawaine. And so it was done, the ride to Sarum taking the remainder of the day.

A feast, of course, was laid out to welcome the great knights. Graid was bumped to a lower table, such were the number of illustrious knights in Robert's hall that eve. It transpired that they were simply passing through on their way to Cornwall; they had gotten it in mind to "go tweak King Mark's nose a bit," as Gawaine put it. The feeling at Camelot, it seemed, was that Sir Tristram had been very ill-treated by his liege lord Mark, what with the poor knight now mad and rudderless and God-only-knows-where, and this band of stalwart fellows didn't think Mark should be allowed to get away with such infamous deeds.

Graid kept his eye on Robert as Gawaine talked, and noticed the Earl growing increasingly stricken at all this discussion of mad knights lost in the wilderness. Sir Gondrins, of course, was still missing, having gone mad during his climactic duel with Sir Loholt some years ago, and it was customary around the halls of Salisbury Castle not to bring up any subject that might remind the Earl of this fact. Gawaine, of course, did not know any of this, and mistook Robert's expression for grave concern.

"Nothing to worry about, good sir," said Gawaine, waving a conciliatory hand. "We only mean to best all Cornish knights who dare challenge us and then depart after a time. How humbling it will be for old Mark to see his best men fall under our lances, and he will no doubt wish Sir Tristram was there to stand up for Cornwall and give us all a good thrashing!" There was a round of uproarious laughter from the other knights and much toasting and drinking. Graid, downing his own goblet, wished he could be among these great fellows as they rode to Cornwall, but alas - he was not a member of the esteemed Round Table as they were.

After that bit of excitement, things settled back into a regular routine. Sir Graid concluded his service to the Earl and returned home to begin formulating plans for the upcoming tournament season. Sir Gilmere was anxious to ride with his uncle, and Sir Briandz the Hunter had also expressed an interest in visiting several tourneys over the summer. And so the "Salisbury Three" rode out for glory and, perhaps, riches in the form of tournament prizes. Alis, a squalling babe on her arm, had given Graid a kiss for good luck before he departed, and he was optimistic about his chances, particularly at some of the smaller tournaments he planned to visit.

The Tournament Circuit, in all, lasted 140 days and encompassed far more Neighborhood, Local, and Regional Tournaments than a single knight could hope to visit in a single year. But they all offered some sort of prize for the winners of the joust and the melee, and Graid felt that, if he went to enough tourneys, he could come away with some winnings to pad the family treasury.

And so it was that, 10 days after the Pentecost Tournament, Sirs Graid, Gilmere, and Briandz rode into a Neighborhood tournament in Hertford. Immediately, Graid knew that he was destined to win this. There were no famous knights, and there wasn't much of a turn-out despite the fact that the tournament was sponsored by the Earl of Hertford. He had a shot! Eagerly, he registered with the Master of the Lists and took part in the opening festivities.


And then more knights started showing up. Dame Idain arrived in the company of several other female knights from Kenilworth Castle led by Dame Adriana, mistress of the castle. Then Sir Mordred and his team from Lothian showed up. Graid discerned informal "teams" forming based on ties of loyalty and blood. Certainly, his own triumvirate from Salisbury was one such group, and they took a solemn vow to do their best to see one of their number crowned either Champion of the Joust or Champion of the Melee.

Despite feeling "in the zone," though, Graid was knocked out around midday of the joust. The second day of the tournament was the melee. Graid was elected Captain of the visiting team and fought like a man possessed, capturing three knights. His performance earned him honors as Champion of the Melee, and at the end of the day, he was presented with a silver bowl filled with old Roman coins, a total value of 10 libra. He received many a hearty backslap from Gilmere and Briandz and basked in the glow and hospitality of Earl Hertford's hearth for perhaps a bit too long, missing the following tournament he'd meant to visit.

Two weeks after departing Hertford, after a leisurely journey under a hot July sun, Graid and his companions rode into a Regional tournament at Wandborough  - and were immediately disheartened to see that multiple Round Table knights were in attendance, along with about 800 other knights. Graid himself spotted the arms of Sir Lamorak, Sir Tor, Sir Aglovale, and Sir Palomides the Saracen.

Graid jousted very well, but was knocked out on day three of jousting, and he had the bruises and contusions to prove it.

[The Tournament rules in Pendragon assign an aggregate amount of damage accrued over the course of a joust or melee, representing the one or two points of damage a knight would be picking up here and there from falling off his horse or getting hit by a Critical strike. Riding the Tournament Circuit therefore becomes a game of balancing one's reduced Hit Point tally against the number of days between tournaments divided by one's Healing Rate. It's a great little mini-game.]

By the time of the melee, Graid was feeling distinctly dispirited and fatigued, and was severely banged up in the ensuing fighting. Missing his wife and newborn son, and so close to home, he decided to return to Broughton early, not even bidding Gilmere and Briandz farewell. [Des failed a Passion roll to inspire Graid for the melee, and so he became Melancholic and was forced to quit the tourney.] He wanted to heal up from his injuries before the big tournament of the year, the Tourney of the Hard Rock, to be held in late September.

Lady Alis tended to her husband and helped him recover from his post-Wandborough funk, and gradually his excitement for the Hard Rock Tourney grew. Presently, he rode out with his squire Dyrn, bound for Clarence - he and 2,000 other knights, plus their extensive entourages, as it transpired. Like some sort of medieval Woodstock, the Hard Rock Tourney had grown vastly beyond its sponsors' initial plans, due in large part to the presence of King Arthur and Queen Guenevere and their court. This was a prestige tournament, and many knights were turning up simply to see and be seen, not even caring about how they did in the lists.

All the latest elements of tournament rules and regulations were on display. Graid wasn't sure if the professional heralds outnumbered the knights, and they were all there to make sure everything ran smoothly. The helm show had now become a formalized ritual; "the showing of windows" was a new practice in which titled knights hung their banners from the castle windows for critique and analysis by the ladies in attendance, who deconstructed the symbolic meaning behind the heraldry on the banners.

"Is he a good Christian knight?" one of Guenevere's maids could be heard to opine. "The lion rampant tells me he values the ethics of war more highly."

Graid stood back and watched, once again feeling jealous that he was not able to participate in this higher level of knighthood. He may have been famous in his home county, but, as during his visit to Camelot the previous year, he was once again feeling like a small fish. Even Sir Lancelot had turned out at this tournament, and he drew a crowd of admirers, men and women alike, wherever he went.

Several days after Graid's arrival, the tournament kicked off officially. A massive grandstand had been erected overlooking the lists, and King Arthur addressed the crowd from under a silken canopy.

"My most esteemed lords, ladies, and gentlefolk: welcome to the Castle of the Hard Rock!" A great cheer rose up from the assembled crowd, which was so large that the people near the back couldn't even hear the king properly and were just cheering along with everyone else as part of the general mood of levity. "As High King, I will not be participating in the forthcoming challenges," said Arthur, to no one's surprise. Graid noted that he was looking a bit sallow-skinned. "Sir Lancelot," and Arthur indicated his champion, standing at his right, "has also elected to sit out the tournament as a competitor and instead enjoy its spectacle from the viewing stands." At this, there was an audible sigh of relief from many of the knights in the crowd.

Seeing Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot up on the stand was inspirational. Graid resolved that this would be his grand moment - for his king, and for his family, he would take the Jousting prize, a finely-bred hunting falcon! And so, over four days, he jousted down every knight he faced, one after another, working his way up through the extensive elimination brackets. Finally, on the early afternoon of the last day of jousting, Sir Graid was called up for the final round of jousting. His opponent was to be Sir Dodinas le Sauvage; the viewing stands were packed. The king and royal household looked on as Graid and Dyrn did a last-minute check of his harness and array, trying to funnel his nervous energy into focused determination.

He mounted his Andalusian charger and took up his jousting lance from Dyrn. He hefted his battered shield and guided his trusty mount with his knees out onto the jousting pitch. There, at the other end, was Dodinas, slipping his great helm down over his face. The crowd in the stands, and the assembled mass of viewers on the other side, were a mass of happy chatter, shouts of support, whistles, laughter, and even snatches of song here and there. Gradually, all that background noise faded away as Graid donned his own helm. His vision, already restricted, became a tunnel focused on one thing only: that sweet spot on Dodinas's shield.

Twenty-one heralds blew a blast on their trumpets, which was sufficient to cut through Graid's focus. It was time! Spurring his horse forward, Graid lowered his lance, every muscle in his body working to keep him in perfect form. The tip of the lance wobbled only slightly before it hit his opponent's shield with terrific impact. However, Dodinas, ever the expert jouster, turned his shield at the last moment, deflecting the full impact of the blow.

The knights came around and quickly spurred their horses into a second pass, and once again Graid landed the telling shot, shattering his lance upon Dodinas's shield. The Round Table knight held on, but as Graid reset for another pass, he saw a herald holding up a small flag with his arms on it - he was up 1-0. In the event neither knight was unhorsed, the first to shatter three lances would be declared the winner.

And now they charged again. Once again, Graid's hit was perfect, although he did not shatter his lance. However, through his helm he heard the crowd erupt into a massive cheer. Hardly daring to believe it, he twisted in his saddle, searching through the narrow slits in his visor for the source of the cheer. And there it was: Sir Dodinas lying flat on his back, his caparisoned destrier trotting about on the pitch, his squires running to his aid.

Graid pulled off his helm, beaming, and did a victory lap, soaking up the crowd's admiration, before trotting up before the royal box. There, Queen Guenevere herself awaited with a gold wreath in hand, smiling her beatific smile. Graid's heart nearly stopped as she placed the wreath upon his head and the crowd cheered even more.

That night, in the hall of the Castle of the Hard Rock, Sir Graid was given a seat at the high table. Still wearing his wreath of victory, he drank and feasted and laughed and flirted and sang, King Arthur's dogs providing accompaniment on the latter. At one point, Sir Dodinas rose and toasted Graid, the whole hall raising their cups to the Champion of the Joust. As everyone drank, Dodinas spoke further.

"If it pleases my liege, I should like to sponsor Sir Graid for membership as a Companion." The Companions of Arthur were an order founded by the king to accommodate the many worthy knights of the realm who exemplified the virtues of the Round Table despite not being members themselves. It was a sort of pseudo-vassalage to the Pendragon and his cause; although members still owed fealty to their sworn liege lords, they could also say they "were Arthur's man." With membership at the Round Table full, it was the best honor Graid could hope for, and he was terrifically excited by the prospect.

Dodinas went on to praise Graid for his tireless energy, his great valor, his loyalty to the Pendragon, and his championing of the ideas of Love as expressed by Queen Guenevere. Arthur listened intently, then, when Dodinas took his seat, rose.

"Sir Graid of Salisbury is a true exemplar of the best that is in all of us as men of the sword. He is henceforth to be known as a companion to me, and may say that he speaks for me in all that he does." There was a polite round of applause as Graid rose from his seat and bowed before the High King.

The feast resumed, and Graid, knowing he had a rare opportunity, struck up a conversation with Arthur. "Your majesty," he said. Arthur started at the interruption - he had apparently been letting his mind wander. Graid had the distinct feeling that the king was not all there most of the time, nor had he been for the tournament thus far. Nevertheless, Arthur was now giving Graid his full and undivided attention.

"I would be remiss in not telling you of a particular encounter I had while upon a quest a couple years back," Graid continued. "I happened upon a most curious sight, but I fear you may laugh to hear it."

"You have no need for concern. I love tales of adventure. Please, do continue."

Graid nodded and launched into his tale. "It was during my travels that I came upon a kingdom that even you, sire, are doubtless unaware of. It was a very unusual kingdom. A kingdom of...frogs."

"Frogs, you say?"

"Yes. I met with, uh, the court and the king and I...served as your ambassador." Graid, despite himself, started to laugh a bit. "And, uh, they asked me to bring happy tidings to you on their behalf...they'd sent ambassadors before, but...I think Sir Kay might have put them in a soup!" At this, Graid dissolved into uncontrollable laughter. Arthur, to his credit, continued to listen politely.


"A thousand pardons, your majesty," said Graid, suddenly feeling mortified. "I fear I've had too much to drink."

"It's been a heady day for you," said Arthur, smiling.

[Des once again failed a Passion roll, rolling a 19 against her Loyalty (Arthur) of 18 to inspire her Orate roll. Not surprisingly, she then failed her Orate. Poor Graid just can't seem to catch a break whenever he gets face time with the king...]

"I assure you, this happened, but clearly I chose a poor time to tell this tale," said Graid, trying to salvage something.

"There are many wonders in our lands these days, and I do not doubt your story, sir," said Arthur with the hint of a grin. Graid clenched his fist in frustration, cursing his foolish behavior.

Graid was silent for the remainder of the evening and eventually drifted back to his pavilion, where he slunk into a melancholy state. He hung around for the remainder of the tourney, but declined to enter the melee, instead lurking about on the peripheries looking sullen and resentful, the bloom of his victory completely obliterated.

From the shade of a large elm not far from the viewing stands, he watched the two teams assemble on the morning of the melee. It was Clarence versus Gloucester, with foreign knights picking sides at their whim. As Graid watched, a strange knight with unfamiliar arms rode up to the royal box.

"I was instructed to bring this to you, sire, and to fight in this tournament," cried the knight in a voice loud enough for all to hear. Graid could just make out the design, which was painted in vibrant colors: on the bottom third of the shield was a man, obviously a king by the looks of the crown he wore; above him stood a knight and a lady, each with one foot standing on the king's head. Arthur took the shield and hung it from the crossbeam of the royal box as the crowd started murmuring amongst itself.

The knights, meanwhile, set to fighting. Soon, a great swirl of dust had been kicked up by the churning hooves and falling bodies, but even through the cloud Graid could tell that Sir Stranger was dominating the field, darting to and fro, capturing knights, even Round Table knights, with apparent ease.

By mid-afternoon, the melee ended with Clarence the clear victor, thanks almost exclusively to the efforts of Sir Stranger, who had joined that side. Arthur rose and called for the strange knight to come and accept his title as Champion of the Melee. The knight rode forth, but did not remove his helm, as was customary.

"Congratulations, strange knight," said Arthur. "You have earned this fine hunting hawk as your prize, and moreover have earned a seat beside me at tonight's feast."

"I'm sorry, sire, but I have not!" said the knight, as he simultaneously brought his horse around, dug in his spurs, and galloped off! The crowd gave an uproar of outrage at this inhospitable behavior, and Lancelot leapt to his feet.

"Dastard!" cried Lancelot. "Mystery Champion or no, he cannot act in such an outrageous manner!" He put his fingers to his mouth and gave a shrill whistle, which was answered seconds later by his white horse. Lancelot jumped from the royal box into the saddle and was off at a tear.

There was a brief pause, and then all was bedlam as every other knight on the field called for their horses as well - everyone wanted to see what Lancelot was going to do to the dastardly Sir Stranger. Graid, forgetting his own melancholy, followed suit, and rode off in the mad rush.

After only a few minutes of riding, the crowd caught up to Lancelot. Two shattered lances lay on the ground, and both knights were now dismounted and fighting. Everyone watched in awe as the ensuing Battle of Heroes unfolded - these were clearly two knights at the absolute peak of their game, and the ensuing duel was the stuff of legend before it even came to its conclusion. The fight went on until sunset and only ended when they called a truce.

Lancelot, drenched in sweat, removed his helmet. "Identify yourself!"

The mystery knight at last removed his dented, battered helm. "I am called Sir Tristram of Cornwall," he said simply.

Tristram
Lancelot
A shockwave of gasps and exclamations rolled out across the assembled crowd. Lancelot embraced Tristram, and exhorted him and everyone to return to the castle "for feast, frolic, and friendship!" Graid, meanwhile, slipped away, quietly collecting his horses and equipment and riding back to Salisbury, his mood once again melancholic. He spent the entirety of the journey excoriating himself for his behavior before the king, and arrived at Broughton in an ill humor. He walked into the hall, wordlessly set the gold wreath on the table, and kept walking as Lady Alis and her maid-in-waiting looked on, confused.

Over the next couple days, Alis managed to lift Graid out of his funk by talking some sense into him, and just in time, too - a week after his return, Graid received a summons to Sarum for an audience with Earl Robert. Reluctantly, Graid answered the call, bringing his wife and household with him; he was much more of a mood to stay home.

Much to his surprise, however, he was welcomed to the mighty keep of Salisbury Castle with great fanfare. "News has reached me of your triumph at the joust at the Hard Rock Tourney, and I wanted to hear all about it!" said Robert as he received Graid in his hall. "And you must have witnessed the battle between Sir Tristram and Sir Lancelot. What was that like? Come tell us a tale, and we shall then hold a feast in honor of your accomplishments."

Graid related the tale well to Robert and his knights, and much enjoyment was gleaned in the telling. As the boards were being brought out to set up for Graid's victory feast, however, trumpets blared from the battlements above. "The alarm!" cried several knights. Robert hustled out of the hall, his household in tow.

Along the castle parapets, guards were excitedly pointing off towards the south. Everyone ran up to the top of one of the towers. From that lofty perch high above the Salisbury Plain, Graid and the rest of the party could see a lone rider, galloping away with a lady over the pommel of his saddle.

"It's the Countess, my lord! She's been abducted!" cried the guard captain.

"What!?" cried Robert.

"How!?" cried Graid.

"To horse!" cried Sir Jaradan.

Graid began searching about for his squire Dyrn, who was not at hand. He found him down in the stables, dicing with some other squires. "Dyrn! Move!" Hurriedly, the abashed squire began helping Graid into his armor and saddling up their horses. After a delay longer than he might have wished for, Graid was mounted up and galloping off after the rider. Delayed as he was, he was still the first out gates - the other knights had not been in any sort of position to suit up in their harnesses, whereas Graid had just come in off the road, and his gear had not yet been packed away.

As he tore out of the gates of the city and descended onto the plain, he could just make out a dust cloud to the south. Gradually, with each passing minute, the distance closed. The dust cloud turned to a pinprick of a silhouette. A thin green line began to appear on the horizon: the Camelot Forest. The silhouette resolved itself into what was clearly a huge, strangely-armored knight mounted on a huge horse. A little closer now - he could hear Countess Katherine's cries. The knight looked back over his shoulder. Graid began reaching for his sword.

Then, without warning, the knight's horse spread a pair of black wings and, with a mighty flap, took to the air. Graid's horse, terrified, skidded to a halt and reared back, whinnying. Graid himself was pretty spooked as well; whatever that thing was, it was not of his world.

As the flying horse disappeared off towards the Camelot Forest, Sir Briandz and Sir Yolains, the next two knights out the gate, caught up to Graid. "God's teeth, what was that!?" exclaimed Yolains.

"Whatever it is, I can track it," said Briandz the Hunter. They began riding towards the woods, keeping their eyes fixed on the flying horse. After a time, when it was well out over the forest, it went into a gentle, spiraling dive and disappeared among the canopy, a flock of birds taking wing at the disturbance.

"If I'm not mistaken," said Briandz, "he's alighted at an old ruined tower. I've made camp there once or twice whilst hunting - it's just a ruined shell. He probably means to hide out there until dark."

Sir Briandz led the trio into the woods, which were starting to turn to autumnal colors. As the day grew long, they spotted the tower ahead through the tree trunks. But they could also see that it had been recently rebuilt, new stone atop old. It was now a fully-fortified tower, topped with a fluttering banner displaying a griffon rampant.

"I guess it's been longer than I remembered since I've been this way," said Briandz sheepishly.

What was more, four armed men stood guard outside the tower door. They were dressed as simple footmen, but looked to be of Saxon extraction.

"How did the Saxons get a griffon?" Graid muttered. These were the last coherent words he uttered, as the old family hatred boiled up inside him. He gave a guttural war cry and rode towards the bandits. The closest bandit stood frozen with fear, his eyes like saucers, as Graid charged home. The Saxon's spear dropped from numb fingers seconds before knight and horse slammed into him. The next second, the bandit lay motionless in the grass, a great gaping wound torn open across his chest. The next bandit was more prepared, fending Graid off with his great spear. It was only a brief respite, however, and the bandit soon joined his comrade in death.

Yolains and Briandz finished off their two opponents, and the three knights then dismounted and left their horses with their squires. The door of the tower was not barred, and the knights cautiously entered, swords out.

In the light coming in through the open door, they could see the entirety of the tower floor was taken up with tables groaning under the weight of a magnificent feast. Briandz threw his sword down and rushed forward to one of the tables and began stuffing his face. Graid and Yolains watched nervously, but Briandz seemed to be fine - he just would not be torn away from all the delicious food, and kept entreating his fellow knights to join him.

Instead, Graid and Yolains crossed the room and mounted a stone stairway that ran along the curving interior wall of the tower. This took them to the next floor, which was lit from light filtering in through arrow slits. Here, the light glittered on mounds of coins, gems, jewelry, finely-tooled horse tack, rolled tapestries, statuary, ancient heirlooms; Graid even saw the sword he lost back when he was a squire!

Although his heart was racing, Graid sensed a trap and pressed on through the room, wending his way through the piles of treasure. "If it's still here when I come back down, I'll collect some of it," Graid promised himself. Reaching the stairs on the far side, Yolains still at his side, Graid climbed to the next floor.

This room, also lit by light coming in through the arrow slits, had a quiet, contemplative air. Niches along the walls displayed a variety of crucifixes in different styles, as well as an oak wreath, a six-pointed star, and assorted heathen idols. Graid made to cross the room, but Yolains put an arm out.

"I feel the presence of the divine in this room," he whispered.

"We must press on!" said Graid.

"Allow me to stop and pray for a moment," said Yolains.

"Do as you will," said Graid. "I will meet you on the next floor." He then mounted the stairs alone. On the next floor, he encountered a strange woman; she was garbed in a cloak made of bird feathers, and her eyes were strangely avian in their intensity, like a hawk evaluating its prey. This room had no stairway, but there was a door set into the wall.

"Greetings, noble knight. The door behind me, only I may open. It is a test, and any knight who wishes to continue on must swear on his sword that no matter what he sees when the door is opened, he will continue through the doorway."

"I'm up for this test. Show me!" The lady flashed Graid a cagey smile. She turned without another word and opened the door. Beyond lay a wide stairway leading up, entirely engulfed in roaring flames: each stair was on fire, the walls were curtains of flame. A blast of heated air washed over Graid. The lady, still smiling coldly, walked forward into the flames, daintily mounting the stairs.

The feathers on her cloak began to immediately wither and smolder, and then she was fully engulfed in flame. Graid watched in horror as her clothes burned off, then her skin blistered and peeled. The muscles beneath blackened, the fat melted and ran, flaming, onto the stairs. Then it was just a skeleton, still walking for a step or two more before it turned and beckoned for Graid to follow, at which point the bones collapsed into a pile of ashen powder.

Without a moment's more hesitation, Graid strode across the room and into the fire. [Des critted her Valorous roll!] The stairs were indeed hot, but Graid did not come aflame. After only a few steps, he emerged onto the crenelated roof of the tower.

Perched across from where Graid had emerged, the winged horse - which Graid now recognized as a griffon - eyed him with the same look the woman downstairs had given him. Nearby, huddled against the wall, was Countess Katherine, her cheeks streaked with tears. She did indeed look a sorry, pathetic creature, not at all the usual haughty noblewoman he was accustomed to seeing. Standing between her and Graid was the knight. He wore a strange sort of armor made up of fitted plates of a sort of iridescent black metal. Graid was irresistibly reminded of a beetle.


"Congratulations on making it thus far, sir knight," came the beetle-knight's voice from within his helm. "If you wish to reclaim your lady, you must defeat me in single combat."

"I will, for my lord Earl Robert, defeat you," said Graid, hefting his shield. The two knights moved into combat. Graid darted forth, his blade flashing, as his opponent attempted a parry with his own massive, two-handed sword. A flurry of blows laid open a shoulder plate and drew blood, and the beetle-knight, despite towering over Graid, was forced to give ground lest he be forced off his feet by the intensity of Graid's assault.

The beetle-knight came back and gave as good as he got, shearing pieces off Graid's shield and battering his armored body. Somehow Graid barely kept his feet, but on the beetle-knight came. Now blood was running over Graid's plate armor and his legs at last gave out from under him. Amazingly, his massive opponent stepped back and let Graid get up.

After a few short seconds to catch his breath, Graid gave a cry and rushed forward. Somehow, he had rallied, and he attacked with renewed force. [Nothing like a critical result on one's attack roll at just the right time!] The griffon watched impassively, Countess Katherine with her hands to her mouth, as the two knights battled it out. Blows were exchanged, but Graid landed more than he got and gradually began to gain the upper hand, somehow even keeping his feet despite his armor now showing several dents and rents, despite the hammering the massive knight was dealing out.

Finally, with both knights on the verge of unconsciousness, Graid bashed his foe with his shield, putting him off-balance, then struck a hard blow upside the knight's elaborate helmet. The knight hit the stone floor with a terrific clatter and did not stir.

There was a moment where the only noise was Graid's ragged breathing. Then, "God's wounds, what happened here?" It was Sir Yolains. "The stairs were wreathed in flame until just a moment ago - as soon as the flames died, I rushed upstairs. Why, it's the Countess!" he exclaimed, as Katherine threw herself into Graid's arms, sobbing. Graid did his best to stay on his feet, leaning on her as much as she was leaning on him.

"Let's go, Yolains," said Graid, his voice just a whisper. The griffon gave a mighty screech and took to the air. As they descended, they found a deserted tower; gone were the gold and gems, and they found Briandz stuffing his face with dead leaves and mushrooms on the floor. "Get up!" growled Graid, kicking the Hunter.

"What!? What happened?" asked Briandz, looking about wildly.

The knights emerged from the tower and mounted up as the sun sank below the horizon. It was dark by the time they got back to Sarum, where they found Robert, Jaradan, and a dozen household knights waiting outside the city gates. There was a tearful reunion between the Earl and his wife, and Katherine then related the tale of Graid's epic battle, the words tumbling from her mouth.

Earl Robert listened, his face impassive the whole time. When Katherine had finished, Robert approached Graid and extended his hand. Graid took it. "I don't know how to thank you," said Robert, his voice hoarse. Graid, swallowing hard, merely nodded. "I'm sorry if ever I've treated you poorly," Robert continued. Graid sank to one knee and bowed his head. Robert placed a hand upon Graid's head, then turned and walked back through the gates Sarum, his wife at his side.

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