Thursday, June 5, 2014

[Solo GPC] 544: Bizarre Love Triangle

The year got off to a great start for Sir Graid: he developed a Loyalty (vassals) passion, his harvest was once again excellent, his wife Alis gave birth to a son, and Graid was formally recognized as patriarch of his extended family. In fact, one of his cousins even sent Graid a bastard child to raise as his own, a request Graid magnanimously granted.

All these boons resulted in Graid putting on a few pounds of muscle as he slowly recovered from his brush with the Fae from some years previous...

We opened the year at Yule Court. After Graid's heroics in rescuing the Countess, he had been invited to attend Sarum Hall's midwinter celebrations as the guest of honor. There was much talk of the king's loss of his two sons, Loholt and Borre, in such relatively rapid succession. Earl Robert was in a saturnine mood, brooding over the loss of his own son, Gondrins.

"But my lord," Graid protested one chilly evening, "your son is not dead like the king's."

"He may as well be," said Robert gruffly. "He dishonored himself and is lost in the wilds."

"I'm sure we'll be able to find your son, my lord!" said Graid optimistically. Robert managed a weak smile, but clearly held out little hope.

As Twelfth Night drew near, Robert approached Graid. "Come the thaw, I have a request for you. I have been notified by one of my bannerets, the Lady Madule, that she wishes to make a trip to the isle of Anglesey in Cambria. She will need an escort to that wild land, obviously."

"I would be honored," said Graid, though his stomach dropped a bit - Madule of the Raven Hair was a strange woman, largely shunned by the rest of Salisbury society. It was whispered that she had studied alongside Morgan le Fay at Amesbury when they were both girls, and she kept a huge collection of seven books in her personal library at Tilshead.


"What do you know of this island?" Graid asked.

"It is a center of the Druids' power," said Robert, simply. Graid wondered why Madule would want to go there, but he didn't know enough about her to venture a guess.

"Is she going to consort with the druids there? A ritual, perhaps?"

"I haven't the slightest idea, and, frankly, I don't want to know," said Robert. "I will see to my obligations as her lord to make sure she is safe, but that's as far as it goes."

"I shall do as my lord commands," said Graid with a gracious bow.

And so the Yule festivities came to an end and Graid returned to his manor. During the spring, news came that King Mark of Cornwall had sent a band of knights into Logres to offer payback for the raid conducted the previous year by Sir Gawaine and an allied band of stalwart Round Table fellows. Apparently, the knights of Logres had jousted down every Cornish knight they encountered until they finally came to Mark's court, where they rebuked him in person for his ill treatment of his own subject and kin, Sir Tristram. Now, Mark's hand-picked Cornish raiders were causing trouble all over; there were even rumors that they had been spotted as close by as neighboring Marlborough County.

Graid busied himself as spring came and went. He skipped the Pentecost Tournament festivities, instead summoning his two vassal knights and tasking them with accompanying him on his escort. He was a bit aggrieved to hear that the pageantry at this year's tournament was unmatched, and that the high court heralds had begun collecting a book whose aim was to eventually record every coat of arms in the kingdom!

As Midsummer approached, Graid received a summons from West Lavington: Lady Madule was ready for her journey. It took three days of riding just to get out to Madule's isolated holdings, far out on the northwest border of Salisbury, nestled in a picturesque valley framed by the Blakemore and Crockwood Forests.

Lady Madule welcomed Graid to her manor, and the next day they departed, Madule riding a white palfrey with a handmaiden following behind upon a mule. They rode out, crossing Ambrosius' Dike. Graid was on high alert, looking out for the Cornish marauders that had been active in this area, but the journey through Marlborough passed uneventfully.

Heading for the Cotswold Hills, the party entered the Campecorentin Forest. After an hour of riding, the quiet woodland scenery was disturbed by an ambush - Graid just managed to get his shield up in time, an arrow thudding into the wood deep enough for the bodkin point to stick out the other side. All around, archers rose up out of concealing bushes and from behind tree trunks.

"Ambuscade!" Graid shouted, spurring his horse towards two nearby archers, both of whom were fumbling with their bows. [Literally - I rolled two Fumbles for these chuckleheads.] Graid swung at both men with his sword, one falling beneath the trampling hooves of his horse, the other's skull being cloven in twain from ear to ear.

Graid looked around, reining his horse back. His two vassals had been just as busy, and several bandit corpses now littered the forest floor. One of the knights had taken a wound from an arrow, but it did not seem serious. Most outrageously, Graid saw that although the two ladies were still safe and unharmed, several arrows lay buried in the ground around them - the bandit curs had been targeting Madule and her handmaiden!

Out through the light screen of trees, Graid spotted a man in a priest's cassock fleeing the scene. Putting his spurs to horse, he galloped forth and easily caught up to the priest, scooping him up as he rode by, throwing him over his pommel. The man struggled a bit, but seemed resigned to his fate.

Graid rode back to the road. His vassals regarded the priest suspiciously, their lances lowered and ready for trouble. The man slid off Graid's saddle as soon as the horse came to a stop, looking around and breathing heavily.

"What is the meaning of this outrage?" asked Graid angrily.

"Sir knight - be you a Christian knight?" asked the priest by way of reply. Graid answered in the affirmative. "Well then, I should tell you I've been tasked by God to destroy the plans of the foul demon known as Dolehan and his pet witch Nia. He wants the pagan girl," he said, flicking his jowls at Madule, "and he has the power to make the followers of false gods do his bidding, so I had to try to stop you from handing her to him. If he takes her as his own, then all is lost."

Graid listened skeptically to these accusations. "Nonsense," he spat. "The Christian thing to do is to let people abide. Didn't Jesus say to love one another? Let us pass in peace. I'm just doing the right thing. I am honor-bound to protect this lady, and you have also endangered the lives of two of my sworn vassals."

"I am in no position to argue, sir. But consider yourself fairly warned."

Sir Graid and his entourage rode on. Lady Madule seemed strangely unflustered; she was clearly made of stern stuff.

"I hope you are well, my lady," said Graid.

"I am not unaccustomed to hostile behavior. Even in our own land, I must contend with jealousy and backstabbing. That this priest chose a more overt route seems almost refreshing."

"The Earl does not seem to care for you overmuch," Graid agreed.

"I think he is frightened of the power I wield." Graid cocked an eyebrow. "Yes, power: my rich inheritance, my refusal to marry a groom of his choosing, my love of reading and knowledge. Even you and your fellow knights, with your strange obsessions of courtly romance and chivalry, have no place in your world-view for a woman like me."

"And yet you are benefitting from my chivalry," Graid countered. "As I told that lackwit priest, I am honor-bound to protect you and see you safely to your destination and thence home again."

"I believe that you believe that," said Madule with a wry grin.

"You are not exempt from my respect or courtesy," said Graid.

"We shall see," said Madule, grin cracking into a smile. Graid rode ahead a ways, anxious to bring an end to the unsettling conversation.

After the ambush, things once again settled down. The Cotswolds were crossed, and the trade road met up with the royal road that led north to Cameliard, moving through the shadowy and fae-haunted Arden Forest. It had been about a week since they had left Salisbury. The Good Folk left the travelers alone, thankfully. Instead, Graid predictably came across a knight guarding a ford deep in the forest.

"Good day, sir knights and gentle ladies! I have have taken the oath to defend this crossing against all who would venture it. On your honor, sir - a joust for love!"

Graid had Madule hang back with his vassal knights as he and the knight trotted out into a nearby clearing, suitably large enough to allow a good jousting run. With one pass of the horses, Graid shattered his lance upon the knight's shield and overthrew him.

"These challenge knights are getting tedious," muttered Graid as he rode off after breaking bread with the knight, who was gracious in defeat. Graid was aware that this whole time Madule had been sizing him up cagily; he was unused to women being so forward, and wasn't sure what to make of it.

Some days later, still riding through the seemingly endless woods, Graid spotted some boar tracks near the road. "If the lady doesn't mind...?" Madule smiled. The group diverged from the trail, Graid in the lead, his vassals close behind, the ladies and squires bringing the rear.

After two hours of following tracks and spoor, Graid quite unexpectedly came upon his quarry, staring up at him with piggy eyes filled with fear and anger. The approach of the mounted men drove the boar into a frenzy, and it rushed with surprising speed towards Graid's rouncey. Graid pulled back on his reins and his horse reared up. The boar zipped between the steed's legs, crashing off into the undergrowth. Graid spurred his horse forward as one of his vassals blasted a note on his hunting horn - the chase was on!

The boar ran with terrific speed, weaving around trunks and up and down rises. Graid coursed along just behind it, expertly guiding his horse through the many hazards of the woods. He was momentarily dazzled by sunlight as he burst out into a wide meadow, but the flat ground gave him a chance to put on a burst of speed. He drew up alongside the boar, jabbing at it as it squealed in anger. And now his vassals were catching up, adding their own spear thrusts to the boar's increasingly bloody back.

Quite unexpectedly, the boar juked to the side, buffeting Graid's leg and steed, although not hard enough to cause harm. Again, the boar rammed Graid's flank, even as his vassal delivered what should have been a mortal blow between the boar's shoulder blades. Instead, the enraged boar lurched forward with a new burst of speed, actually pulling the vassal's spear from his hands! But it was faltering, and Graid saw his chance to deliver a coup de grace. The boar at last collapsed.

The squires and ladies now caught up, and some of the squires began setting up camp while others accompanied the knights to a nearby stream to begin butchering the boar. As the waters of the stream turned blood red, Graid spotted nearby an ancient circle of standing stones, nearly concealed by growths of wild roses and ivy. The stones, which were about 12 feet high, were covered in thick carpets of moss and lichen.

As the knights brought the butchered boar back to camp, Graid told Madule about the stones. "Perhaps in the morning I will take a look," said Madule, intrigued. And then the travelers ate their fill of juicy roasted boar meat and fell into a deep slumber.

Graid awoke with a start. He was in his tent, and it was quite dark - dawn was still hours off, he judged. A bit of refracted moonlight provided some illumination, however, and as his eyes adjusted he saw that the floor of the tent was covered with a carpet of mist. Rising, he stepped outside and was nearly enveloped in a thick fog rising up from the ground. Quickly, he crossed to Lady Madule's tent - and met her as she emerged, fully dressed, from within.

"Something's afoot," she said, an excited glint in her eyes. Instinctively, Graid looked back towards the standing stones in the woods. The mist was thicker in that direction, and he was pretty sure he could see a soft glow. Madule was looking too.

It took about 15 minutes for Graid to rouse his knights and squires and for everyone to don their armor. Then, with Lady Madule following, they set off towards the stones, all mounted atop their best steeds, riding slowly and cautiously.

As the party approached the stones, Graid could see a young, beautiful woman, her hair the color of moonlight, standing naked in the center of the stone circle, her hands raised to the sky in supplication. Out of the mist on the far side of the circle emerged five knights on horseback. They too were riding with care, but they had their weapons out, as if expecting a fight, and their unhelmeted faces bore melancholic expressions. They wore old-style armor, like that worn in the time of Uther.

"Blades out, men," said Graid, warningly. And, as the swords left their scabbards, the other knights wordlessly spurred their mounts forward to attack! One of the knights landed a punishing blow on Graid, but Graid returned the favor, sending his foe down into the mist with a trailing gout of blood.

Another knight was on Graid's other side immediately, and the battle went on. After a few desultory blows were exchanged, Graid drew his blade across the foe's face, slicing open his jaw. The man fell from his horse, gurgling blood.

Looking around, Graid could see that the mist was growing thicker. One of his vassal knights was nowhere to be seen, his horse trotting around riderless. All save one of the enemy knights were out of action; that one surviving knight was now riding back towards the circle, where not only the nude woman but Lady Madule now stood - they were facing each other in the midst of a tower of fog, which was spiraling up around them. Without a moment's hesitation, Graid spurred his horse forward. "Go, Moonlight!" he urged his charger, and the warhorse proved aptly named as it leapt into the moonlit glade.

As soon as he crossed the boundary of the circle, Graid became lost in a sightless, soundless world. The mist filled his vision with silvery wisps, and all noises seemed somehow muffled, as though he had stuffed his ears with mud. Peering hard through the obscuring fog, Graid at last spotted some movement: a large, black wolfhound, trotting along, pausing to look at Graid, and then loping off.

"Madule? Madule?" Graid called. No response. He guided his horse through the impenetrable banks of fog. Was the mist lifting? It seemed so. Yes, but now instead of being blinded by fog, he was blinded by darkness. He was in the woods still, but the canopy overhead now cast the forest floor into a deep gloom. Strangely, he could also smell the distinct tang of sea air, and hear the distant sound of waves crashing. Their travels had taken taken nowhere near the coast thus far. Curious, Graid rode towards the sea, blundering around in the pitch dark forest.

After nearly running afoul of a low-hanging branch, Graid stopped, tethered his horse, and slept in his armor, curled up in the roots of a tree. His fitful sleep was beset by a dream of a dark tower surrounded by lightning, which then turned to a vision of a haughty-looking knight with golden locks leering down at Graid. The knight was dressed in gold robes, standing at a pagan altar. In his dream, Graid then saw Lady Madule, silently weeping, approaching the altar with a bouquet of frost-covered black roses. The dream then shifted to Camelot, where Graid saw a horrifying vision: King Arthur's head bouncing down the steps of the dais whereupon his throne sat, then his headless body tumbling after. The golden-robed knight stood at the throne, and, still sneering, set the High King's crown upon his head. The dream ended with a vision of Camelot crumbling into ruin.

Graid awoke, drenched in a cold sweat. "The priest was right!" he said. Blinking, he saw that the sun had risen, the sky overhead was light. Off in the distance, through the screen of trees, he could see the land giving way to cliffs overlooking the wide sea beyond. And, perched dramatically atop a sweeping curve of the bluffs, was the very same dark tower that Graid had seen in his dreams.


As he rode out of the woods, Graid could see that the ocean was much closer than he had presumed. The reason he had thought it so distant was because the bluffs themselves were perhaps a hundred feet or more in height; the crashing waves were far below.


The tower loomed nearby. It was an impressive structure, some 40 feet high in its own right. No banners flew from any part to identify its resident. Access to the tower was via a set of double doors, which were guarded by two rather hulking footmen, each armored in the same archaic manner as the knights from the battle at the stone circle. They bore unmarked shields and massive swords, the largest Graid had ever seen. They had a strangely stretched aspect about them, and their skin was the color of young wood.

Undeterred, Graid rode up to the tower. "I am Sir Graid of Salisbury. I have been traveling all night, and request the hospitality of the lord of this tower!"

By way of response, two crossbow bolts came flying out of arrow slits situated above the doors. One thudded into Graid's shield. Needing no further persuasion, he wheeled his horse around and rode swiftly back to the safety of the woods. After some desultory searching for the stone circle, Graid approached the tower once again. From the trees, he watched the tower for a couple hours, but saw no further signs of activity.

As he watched, Graid thought back on his dream. He could think of no way to get into this tower short of direct frontal assault, which seemed suicidal. On the other hand, if that dream had been some sort of prophecy, then the lord of this tower posed a serious threat to the High King. Fueled with a desire to protect Arthur from harm, Graid re-mounted his horse and rode forth. "For the Pendragon!" he shouted, as the two guards raised their massive swords and prepared to meet his charge.

Another crossbow bolt buried itself in Graid's shield before he made contact. Blades flashed. Graid took a solid hit that cut through his pauldron and drew blood, but in return one of the outsized guards was buffeted to the ground, nearly getting trampled beneath Moonlight's hooves.

He locked blades with the other guard, straining to overcome its unnatural strength. Graid managed to throw the guard off, but was unable to harm him. The other guard was now back on his feet, striking Graid from behind. Graid lashed out, striking the guard and once more knocking him to the ground.

Graid screamed incoherently, fighting for his life. Moonlight wheeled about, whinnying frantically as Graid lashed out, first at one guard, then the next, just barely holding them at bay. Finally, one fell beneath his blade. The other threw down his giant sword, surrendering.

"Open the doors," said Graid simply, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He was reeling from his wounds. The guard pulled from beneath his hauberk an oversized iron key, which he used to unlock the doors. Beyond, Graid could see an antechamber with another set of double doors on the far side. "Open those, too," said Graid, who rode his horse through the capacious doors.

The second set of doors opened out into a massive great hall that took up most of the tower's two bottom floors. Tapestries were hung along the curved walls, and Graid could see stairs set into the walls as well - one stairway going up to the ceiling, the other going down into the floor. He could also see doors to his left and right.

Dismissing the guard, he left Moonlight in the great hall and began ascending the stairs leading up. As he passed from the great hall and into a narrow stairwell, he reached a door set into the interior wall. Opening the door, Graid saw a solarium - and on the far side, another of those strange guards, this one armed with a crossbow, which was quickly leveling to fire.

Graid's shield collected a third crossbow bolt as he charged across the room and pummeled the guard with punishing blows. As the man fell beneath Graid's assault, he noticed that the guard's blood looked not unlike tree sap. Putting this observation out of his mind for the time being, Graid pressed on through the doors and found himself in a narrow hall filled with doorways. He clearly heard sobbing coming from the door to his left.

Forcing the door, he entered a small bedroom. Flung across the modest bed was Lady Madule, her face buried in her hands. As Graid entered, she looked up, tears streaking her face. "Sir knight! I thought I was lost..."

Without another word, Graid swept up Madule, throwing her over his shoulder. "There's really no need for that, sir," Madule protested, but Graid would not be dissuaded.

"We must flee!" he said, forcefully. Hustling down the stairs, he saw no further signs of any guards. In the hall, he boosted Madule onto Moonlight, then led the horse out through the antechamber. The front doors were closed again, but Graid flung them open - and emerged not onto earth and stone, but wooden boards. Overhead was a canvas pavilion, and ahead were grand tournament grounds, the dirt churned by innumerable hooves and boots. "Stay here," said Graid, as he walked towards the railing of the viewing platform.

Down on the grounds sat a knight atop a midnight black charger. He wore plate armor, its metal burnished to a silver sheen. His helmet was tucked under his arm, and his golden locks flowed in the breeze.

"Who are you?" Graid barked.

"So, whelp," said the golden-haired knight by way of response. "You thought you could come and take that which you desire by stealth, breaking into mine own house by base sneak-thievery? Do you have the honor and valor enough to joust for your prize?"

Suddenly, Graid saw Madule now on the other side of the tourney grounds, sitting upon a pedestal, looking somewhat bemused at her sudden change in location. Looking back, Graid saw Moonlight standing serenely on the platform still. He led the horse down from the pavilion onto the field, mastering his fear as he mounted up.

Graid took a lap around the grounds; Madule threw her headscarf down and Graid caught it, wrapping it around the base of his lance. Thinking again of King Arthur, Graid felt all his fear melt away, his focus sharpening. Without any further preliminaries, he spurred Moonlight forward, lowering his lance. The golden knight did the same, and they met in the middle of the field, Graid landing the better blow by far. His lance snapped off at the base, right where Graid had tied Madule's scarf. Such was the force of the blow that it nearly stove in the knight's breastplate, and the rider was hurled to the ground.

Wheeling his horse back around, Graid could see the knight slowly regaining his feet, a gaping hole in his armor. His helmet had been knocked off by the force of Graid's blow, which surely would have proven mortal for a lesser knight. Blood trickled from the corner of the knight's mouth, but he doggedly drew his sword.

"I will not let you defeat me," the knight said hoarsely.

"I don't think you have a choice in the matter," said Graid as he hopped down off Moonlight. Graid picked up the shattered end of his lance to use as a spear, and the two fighters squared off. They crashed into each other, bashing shields. Graid, despite his bravery, could feel his body betraying him. He had been fighting more or less continually for hours, and his underclothes and armor padding were drenched in his sweat and blood. He had to end this, and quickly.

Graid landed an ineffective blow, they locked shields again, and then, with his last ounce of strength, Graid heaved his foe off and away. The knight stumbled back and Graid pressed ahead remorselessly.

[At this point, both Graid and his opponent were one point away from falling Unconscious from their wounds!]

Graid's sword rose and fell, but the knight's superior armor absorbed the force of the blows. Somehow he kept his feet, and paid Graid back with solid hits of his own. Madule watched, her hands to her face, as the two men whaled on each other in the hot summer sun. She let out a yelp as, finally, Graid timed his spear thrust just right, driving the tip through the knight's head.

For a moment, Graid thought he was losing consciousness. Then, he realized he was merely surrounded by that strange enveloping mist again. Presently it cleared. Blinking, he saw that he was back in the stone circle, but it was daylight still. Lady Madule stood nearby, as did Moonlight and the enemy knight's black charger. Also nearby was the black wolfhound Graid had spotted during his initial venture into the stone circle. It sat perfectly still, staring at Graid with an assessing gaze. After a quiet moment, the dog stood and trotted forward, nuzzling Graid's hand. He pet the dog, and then looked back at Lady Madule.

She was smiling, but it wasn't a smile of relief. Rather it was a smile of triumph. "Congratulations," she said. "You have passed the test I have set for you. I wanted to see if the greatest knight in Salisbury, scion of one of the greatest knights of all time, was everything others claimed him to be. None of what you just experienced was real." In that moment, Graid suddenly realized he was no longer wounded, no longer tired, no longer drenched in blood and sweat. His armor was not rent and dented, his lance was whole. "The only exception is that horse yonder," she continued, indicating the black horse. It was a massive beast, one of the biggest horses Graid had ever seen.

Reverentially, he approached. He stroked the horse's flank, and then drew back, startled - for, in the place he had touched the horse, the coat had turned a dappled gray. The dappling was now spreading across the horse's coat, and in many places even turning white. Within seconds, in fact, the entire coat turned silvery white.

"This horse's coat matches the character of its owner," Madule said.

"I own this horse?" Madule nodded. "And...it will change colors if my moral character changes?" Madule nodded again. "This is not a gift..." Graid muttered, but he thanked Madule nonetheless. "I am only too happy to be judged a worthy knight in your eyes."

"For this year, at least," said Madule, chuckling. And as Graid looked at her, he felt that he had never seen her in her true light before. It was a beautiful light, and he knew that he would do anything to serve her.

[Basically, Madule laid an enchantment on Graid to get him in her thrall, giving him an Amor passion for her at a value of 18. Those knights he had fought and defeated in the standing stones were former thralls of hers that had fallen out of favor...]

At this point, Madule informed Graid that they would be returning to Salisbury - she had never intended to go all the way to Anglesey. They located Graid's vassals and squires camping nearby and made their way back through Warwick, Wuerensis, Clarence, through the Campecorentin Forest, and then into Wandborough.

As they approached the borders of Salisbury, several peasants came running up to flag down the party. "Please, sir knights - we've been attacked! Our cottages were burned!"

Leaving one of his knights with Lady Madule and her handmaiden, Graid took his other vassal and rode off in the direction the peasants were indicating. Soon enough, he caught sight of four mounted men, all armored - mercenary knights, perhaps. They saw him, too, and two of their number peeled off and rode back to intercept.

All this time, Graid's newly-acquired wolfhound had been coursing along at his side. Now, it threw back its head and let loose an unearthly howl, the most bone-chilling howl Graid had ever heard. But if it gave him the chills, it affected the oncoming knights even more gravely. Their horses reared up, and the knights themselves jumped to the ground, clutching their heads in pain. Graid's vassal hung back to take the bandits into custody, and Graid continued on after the other two riders.

It took an hour of steady riding, but Graid had the superior steed in the form of his newly-acquired horse and he gradually closed the gap, finally catching them up. One of the knights wheeled around and charged Graid. Thinking of his newfound desire for Lady Madule, he obliterated the knight, shattering the last of his lances and leaving about half of it protruding out the back of the hapless bandit.

The final knight threw his weapons down. "I surrender!" Suddenly, Graid realized who he had just captured: it was none other than King Mark of Cornwall. Graid was momentarily speechless.


"Your majesty, I must put you under arrest," said Graid, who then bound the king's hands, apologizing the whole time.

And so Graid returned to Sarum a hero, his great deed stunning Earl Robert and his entire court. The Earl heaped honors upon Graid, culminating with naming him castellan of Du Plain Castle. Graid felt vaguely uneasy about the whole thing - if it hadn't been for the strange dog and fae horse that Madule had given him, he could have never captured King Mark. Had he truly earned the victory and the plaudits?

Sir Graid at last came home to Broughton, where he told Alis most of what had transpired during his journey. Graid had handed over King Mark to Earl Robert, who then escorted him to Camelot. News of Mark's capture was kept quiet, as Arthur had the honor of announcing such a fortuitous event in his own time and manner.

A few weeks later, near to harvest time, Graid was personally invited to attend an impromptu tournament in Camelot, dubbed "the Friendship Tournament." Graid, for the first time, was specifically invited to dine with the king simply by virtue of his personal glory.

Camelot was, as always, a feast for the senses, and the tournament feast was as rich and extravagant as Graid might have hoped or expected. He mingled with Sir Gawaine, talked food and drink with Sir Kay, overheard Sir Mordred smirking about the strange shield that Sir Tristram had presented at the Hard Rock Tournament the year before: "Am I the only one who didn't understand what was going on last year?" At the high table, King Mark sat to one side of the Pendragon, Sir Tristram on the other.

Arthur made a big speech about friendship and forgiveness, and it culminated with Mark and Tristram shaking hands. There was much talk at the lower tables of the great friendship forged between Lancelot and Tristram, who many considered to be paragons of the ideals of knighthood in their own unique ways, Lancelot the great poet-knight, Tristram the earthy lover and hunter.

Due to the impromptu nature of the tournament, it was releatively lightly attended despite being a Royal Tourney. In addition, many of the Round Table knights on hand elected to sit the tournament out as a sign of solidarity with each other. Accordingly, Graid entered the joust. Determined to do well before the Queen, he made it as far as the semi-finals, which was not a bad showing for a tournament held at Camelot.

The tournament grounds were, as before, swimming with teams of knights, and many turned out for the melee. Graid was up the stands for this one, and so had an excellent view when, just like the year before, yet another mystery knight crashed the tourney! This time, the mystery knight bore a red shield rather than a blank white one, and he showed up not before the melee, but during it. Many of the knights in the stands began suiting up, anxious to take a shot at this audacious cad. Graid, for his part, hung back, too amused by the spectacle to want to join in.

The Red Shield Knight fought every bit as well as Tristram had the year before, but he did not fight for any team. Rather, he seemed to be targeting knights of the Orkney clan and their allies - Agravaine, Mordred, Gaheris, even Gawaine, all fell beneath his assault.

The melee at last came to a close, the Red Shield Knight the clear victor despite his illegal entry. The mystery knight, although he tried at first to sneak away, was brought before the High King. Arthur demanded he remove his helmet, and everyone gave a cheer when it was revealed to be Lamorak!

"So many years gone from Camelot, it's good to have you back, sir!" said Arthur. "Join us at the feast tonight."

"To be honest, your majesty," said Lamorak, casting a glance over at the Orkneys, who were standing in a seething knot out on the tournament fields, "I don't feel particularly safe here. I couldn't restrain myself when I heard that the Orkneys would all be competing in the melee, but now I must go. By your leave, of course," he added hastily.

Arthur sighed. "Do what you must, sir."

That night at the concluding feast, Graid realized that all the Orkneys were in attendance save for Gaheris, who seemed to have departed earlier in the day. His observation was cut short by the High King rising for a toast.

"No doubt many of you are wondering what has brought King Mark of Cornwall to Camelot. With the conclusion of this tournament, I would like to recognize a great fellow king," he said, raising his goblet. The rest of the hall remained silent, no one giving a cheer for Mark. Arthur cleared his throat and sat.

Mark rose from his throne. "Citizens of Camelot and Britain. I am pleased to be a guest here and bring good news for the realm." Graid could tell Mark was struggling to get the words out. Arthur stood again.

"Good King Mark is here to swear homage to me as his liege lord!" The silence in the hall shifted from resentful hatred to stunned disbelief. "Is that not true, your highness?"

"It is," muttered Mark in a voice so low it barely carried across the hall. Gradually, ragged cheers began to echo across the hall, rising to a crescendo as the news sank in. Priests and legates came forward to witness the homage, and everything was shortly made official, with much accompanying revelry.

The next morning, as Graid nursed a hangover, Sir Kay came by his quarters. A scribe was following behind. "We are in the process of making arrangements for King Mark's ransom. As his captor, you will obviously be due a portion, to be arranged once the ransom is delivered."

***

Graid returned to Salisbury, where he assumed his duties as castellan. There, as winter approached, a bit of scandalous gossip reached his ears. It transpired that Gaheris had indeed left Camelot the day of the melee at the Friendship Tournament. So incensed was he at Lamorak's defeat of him and his kin that he was determined to exact revenge.

He found Lamorak's steeds hitched near a familiar manor not far from the city, one that he recognized as a house owned and used by his mother, Queen Margawse, whenever she visited Camelot. Entering the house, he heard her cries from upstairs. Assuming Lamorak was attacking her, he rushed up to her chambers, only to find her and his sworn enemy locked in a lover's embrace in her bed.

Driven to fury, Gaheris attacked Lamorak, despite his state of undress. In the ensuing melee, however, somehow Gaheris killed his own mother. Whether by accident or out of bloodlust, well, that was the crux of it, and the subject of endless fireside debates. What was known was that, as the young Orkney knight sank to his knees in distress, Lamorak grabbed his gear and fled the house. The entire Orkney clan had then subsequently retreated to Lothian to hide out from the king's justice, and Lamorak had not been heard from since the incident either.

"Clearly a year for love triangles," Graid mused, as he thought about his wife back in Broughton...and of Lady Madule.
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