Friday, June 20, 2014

[Solo GPC] 545: Blind Man's Bluff

Winter came to Broughton and brought with it tragedy. Graid's beloved wife, Lady Alis, gave birth to a son but did not survive the labor. Grieving, he ordered the hall draped in black, hired a nurse to look after his children, and departed for Sarum, where he intended to surround himself with the knights and ladies of the Earl's court.

At Sarum, Graid brooded. He wondered if the death of his wife had been caused by the machinations of Lady Madule of the Raven Hair. He publicly denounced her every chance he got, but at night his dreams were haunted by visions of the reclusive woman. He began to drink heavily, both to forget his grief and dull his strange feelings for Madule. It was in this altered state, then, that he set his sights on the beautiful young wife of the steward of Ebble Castle, Sir Melianus. Her name was Amide, and, despite being a newlywed, she was captivated by Graid's winish swagger. Their burgeoning affair was an open secret, particularly as the cold weather forced them to conduct their assignations inside Salisbury Castle - not the most private of locales for such scandalous behavior.

Sir Melianus was forced to stand by, impotent with rage. He was a knight of middling rank and advancing age, while Graid was the county's greatest living knight and young and handsome to boot. Even worse, he was a favorite of King Arthur, so there could be little hope for justice even if Melianus took his case to the High Court - or so he felt. To his closest confidants, he swore vengeance upon Graid, but he knew it would have to be undertaken on the sly. He would have to be devious and catch Graid at a vulnerable moment. And so he began to plot and plan. . .


Graid was not the only one in a gloomy mood at Yule Court that year. The scandal of Gaheris killing his own mother had shocked many of the gentry, and almost all the talk at court centered on the tale and its aftermath. Some blamed Arthur's obvious declining health on the wicked actions of the Orkney clan, others said Gaheris's actions were the natural result of knights not having wars to fight.

When Graid returned to his lands, he found even more bad news waiting for him: reports from across the east end of the county told of a giant boar ravaging the countryside. It had even struck Broughton, destroying the apiary built some 60 years ago by Sir Herringdale when he was still just a young knight. Graid immediately made arrangements to rebuild the hives as he hired hunters to track this terrible beast and kill it.

Despite his winter scandal, Graid was more famous than ever. [Primarily for his role in single-handedly capturing King Mark, Graid amassed a jaw-dropping 1,635 Glory the previous year!] In recognition of his continuing achievements, Earl Robert presented Sir Graid with the key to Du Plain Castle at the Pentecost feast. Like his father before him, Graid was now castellan of Du Plain. This was just as well, as it gave him a place other than Broughton, so full of raw and painful memories, to spend his time. With his new income and station, he also began maintaining himself at a level suitable to his station.

Looking ahead to the upcoming Tournament Season, the buzz was all about the regional tourney at Nottingham in August and another regional at Maldon (in Essex) in October. In speaking with other knights of the county, all indications were that this would be a good year for tournaments, because most of the Round Table knights had been assigned to guard King Mark's ransom on its journey from Cornwall to Camelot. This meant Graid would be one of the highest-ranking knights not guarding the treasure, should he choose to attend any tournaments.

Much closer to home, however, was the issue of the monstrous boar harrying eastern Salisbury. Those hunters who weren't killed in the pursuit brought back terrified reports of a demon-sow the size of several horses. The creature's saliva could dissolve metal, they claimed, and in the sow's wake followed several beastly piglets, each the size of an ox-cart. This was a problem well beyond the ability of hired varlets to handle; Graid decided a visit to Lady Madule was in order. She was wise in much strange and forgotten lore - surely she would be able to suggest a solution! Besides, even the lovely Lady Amide had been unable to distract Graid for long from his thoughts of the raven-haired Madule.

And so, after the spring planting was concluded, Graid made the long trip out to West Lavington on the far side of the county. Arriving at Madule's hall as the sun was setting, he was met by his enigmatic mistress. "What brings you to my hall?" queried Madule as she lightly reposed upon her carved throne. Graid explained the problem of the boar. Madule smiled. "Yes, I have heard of your troubles."

"Which ones?" asked Graid, just a slight sardonic trace to his voice.

"All of them. And I think they are not unrelated. But I shall sleep on it and we will consult in the morning."

Food was provided and Graid slept near the warmth of the hearth. The next morning, Graid was summoned to the courtyard. There, he found Madule with his destrier. She was caressing the steed's nose. "Such a fine animal this is," she said. "I thought perhaps we could go for a ride together."

Graid helped Madule up onto the broad back of the destrier, then got up behind her. She leaned back into his chest, humming softly. It was a strange tune, one he couldn't quite place. He breathed in the perfumed aroma of her hair as they rode. Soon, they were riding through the sun-dappled Blakemore Wood, the morning light soft in the canopy above. In time, they came to a meadow. A gentle breeze rustled the wild grass as butterflies flitted about and birds chirped and winged from branch to branch. Graid slid off his saddle and helped Madule dismount. Ever the courteous gentleman, he spread out his cloak and offered it to Madule, and she laid out, staring up at the sky. She casually stretched out an arm and a butterfly alighted upon her finger, gently flapping its wings.

"Not to be immoderate," she said, staring at the butterfly, "but I understand that you lost your lady love over the winter." Graid nodded curtly. "This means your house is now emptier, sadder. You are no doubt looking for a new wife to bring into your household?"

"Well," said Graid thoughtfully, "although I am still grieving, if such an opportunity were to present itself, I suppose I would avail myself, yes."

Madule watched as the butterfly took to the air again. "And if such an opportunity could only be taken through deception, would you still avail yourself?"

"I would not. I already have enough regrets, and I am still young."

Madule did not say anything. She stood up and undid one of the ribbons on her sleeve. "Take hold of the other end of this ribbon."

Graid cautiously did as Madule bade. "Now close your eyes and follow me," said Madule. Graid did so, and as soon as his eyes shut he felt a marked drop in temperature and an increase in the force of the blowing breeze. The ribbon was straining in his fingers, so stiff was the wind. He began to walk, feeling the meadow grass swishing against his legs, allowing himself to be led.

Then, quite suddenly, he heard a loud roar as if that of a gigantic boar. The beating of hooves shook the ground, and hot breath washed over the back of his neck. Graid's eyes sprung open as he looked around wildly. He was still in the meadow, and all was warm and peaceful again. They had walked no more than 10 feet, and there was no sign of a boar.

Madule looked back. "Keep your eyes closed!" she said chidingly, like a mother playfully admonishing her child.

"I'm sorry. I've seen what those beasts can do and I was startled." He closed his eyes and they began walking again.

The temperature did not grow cold again. Rather, it began to rise until it was uncomfortably hot. Furthermore, Graid realized that he no longer felt the grass against his legs, but instead could feel sand and rock beneath his leather-soled feet. He even stumbled a time or two on a large rock.

As he walked, still holding one end of the ribbon, Graid realized the ground was gradually growing steeper. Soon, he was struggling through hot sand on a steep embankment - and then the ground gave out entirely! He had stepped off the edge of a cliff and was falling! The ribbon had grown slack, as if Madule had let go of the other end.

Graid's eyelids fluttered, but he squeezed them shut. He chose to trust Madule, and as soon as he thought this, the ground was suddenly beneath his feet. The temperature was again back to normal, and Graid could hear the gentle breeze in the grass and the chirping of birds. He also heard the sound of approaching hooves and a voice - it was his nephew Gilmere!

"Sir Graid! You look ridiculous! Why are you letting that lady lead you around by a ribbon?"

"We're playing a game. Leave us be!" said Graid, still not opening his eyes. He heard Gilmere and a couple other men laughing, but suddenly the laughter turned to shouts of alarm.

"She's turned into a hag! Look out!" they shouted as their horses whinnied in terror. Graid steadfastly kept his eyes closed, however.

And then he heard Madule's voice, very close, her breath on his ear. "Open your eyes." He did so. He had only traveled a few more feet through the meadow, not even reaching the woods yet. Gilmere and his companions were nowhere to be seen, but Graid did see a solitary knight now riding towards them through the woods. As the helmed knight entered the clearing, Graid could see that he bore a blank shield. The knight raised his visor to reveal a portion of his sneering face.

"Well, if it isn't the famous Sir Graid du Plain!" he said mockingly. "I never thought I'd see the like of such a famous and well-regarded knight dawdling like a milksop with a girl, playing blind man's bluff, rather than seeking danger and adventure! Isn't there a terrible boar at loose in your lands? Why aren't you taking care of that?"

Madule clutched at Graid's sleeve. "Don't rise to his taunts. Stay here with me," she said. "Don't fight."

"I should only hope, sir, that you do not have to endure what I have over the past year," said Graid through gritted teeth, addressing the sneering knight. "And if, God help you, you do, I hope that you are not made the subject of mockery as you have done to me. What looks like fun and games to you is part of my quest to rid my very lands of the terrible boar."

The knight flicked his reins and trotted forward. "You are a coward and a fool!" he spat.

Madule took Graid's hand. "Come, I packed refreshments in your horse's saddle bags. Pay no mind to him. Let us eat." Graid was bristling, rooted to the spot, feeling that both his and Madule's honor had been impinged.

As Madule continued to pull on Graid's hand, the sneering knight dismounted. Without a word, he pulled his gauntlet off his hand and threw it in Graid's face!

His eye twitching, Graid mastered his anger. "This is not the time or place, sir," said Graid. "If nothing else, I am unarmed. But even if were ready for battle, I would not spill your blood in front of this gentle lady. I shall see you on the tournament field at Nottingham in August."

By way of response, the knight turned to Madule and slapped her hard across the face! Without a moment's hesitation or thought, Graid instantly drew his dagger and launched himself at the knight, hitting him upside the head. The knight was hurled to the ground, his helm sent flying. The knight was rolling around on the ground, clutching his head in pain, as Graid stood over him, eyes ablaze. Looking down, he now recognized the unhelmed knight: it was Sir Melianus.

"I was wrong to disrespect you!" Melianus groaned. "You are a far greater and more valorous knight than I."

Graid's anger quickly abated, replaced with a feeling of deep embarrassment. He flopped down on the ground. "Look," he said, "I am truly sorry for the disrespect and disrepute I brought to your household. I will spare your life if you agree to set aside your enmity for me." Melianus just continued to groan and clutch his head. Graid stood again and offered his hand. Melianus took it reluctantly, then stumbled back to his horse, weaving slightly. He remounted and rode off, slumping in the saddle.

"Very well played, sir," said Madule. "Come, I wish to show you something." She took Graid's hand again and led him to the edge of the meadow, to a large, hollowed-out tree trunk. From within it, she extracted a bright sword, its hilt decorated with rich carvings. "This sword is a very special one," she said. "For you will find you cannot be made to drop it in a fight. Those who are renowned as proud knights find they wield this sword with greater puissance than any other, for it is attuned to be in harmony with such folk."

"But I am a modest knight," Graid said proudly. "Are you sure I should have such a sword? Wouldn't it be better in the hands of a knight who is known for such pride?" Madule nodded encouragingly. "Ah!" said Graid, seeing the big picture now. "I must find a knight worthy of wielding this sword!"

"And that is the knight that shall slay the Troit Boar," said Madule, smiling.

Graid took the sword and escorted Madule back to her manor. He thanked her and departed the same day. On the way back to Broughton, he mused about who would be the best knight to wield this enchanted sword. Perhaps someone at Sarum? Or at Camelot? Or somewhere else, perhaps out on the road? Most of the Round Table knights weren't even in the kingdom at the moment, though. . .

At Sarum, Graid spent a week speaking to knights and courtiers, telling them of his quest, but no suitable candidates presented themselves. He rode on to Camelot, which seemed strangely empty with so many Round Table knights and their retinues gone from the city. A week's stay in that great city produced no candidates either. But, during his stay, Graid formulated a plan.

Three days after leaving Camelot, Graid rode up to the gates at Ebble Castle. It was an old shell keep and not in the best repair, but it was the home of Sir Melianus. Unfortunately, the lord was not available to grant an audience - he was still recovering from the fractured skull Graid had delivered him. Graid next visited Sir Yolains at Devizes, who did grant an audience and listened with interest to Graid's story, but demurred on the basis of his age.

Somewhat at a loss, Graid returned to his lands. In August, he began making preparations to receive his share of King Mark's ransom, to be kept in the treasury at Du Plain Castle. He also began training for the October tournament in Essex, all the time thinking about to whom he could give the sword. Sir Turquine was probably the most infamously prideful knight in the lands, but he was also a dastard and a Saxon to boot! No, Graid would have to look elsewhere.

In the last week of August, a great procession could be seen making its way to Du Plain. Two large wagons, each covered with a tarp, lumbered along, pulled by oxen. Two dozen guards rode at either side and behind the wagons. At the head of the procession rode three great Round Table knights, their armor gleaming, banners and caparisons fluttering: Sir Dinadan, Sir Sagramore le Desirous, and Sir Palomides the Saracen. As, under the watchful eye of Graid's valet Duncan and steward Conover, the wagons in the bailey were being relieved of their valuable treasure - chests full of coins and gems, tapestries, precious metal plates, rich fabrics - the master of the castle entertained the Round Table knights in his hall.

The hall rang with manly laughter as Graid laid out his best wine and mead from the cellars. Graid waited until everyone was a bit red in the cheek, then spun the story of the Troit Boar and of his quest to find a hunter worthy of wielding the blade given him by Madule. The knights listened intently, the light of adventure growing strong in their eyes.

"Alas, sir!" said Sir Sagramore when Graid had finished. "We are honor- and duty-bound to complete our task of escorting the remainder of the ransom to Camelot or else we would join you on this hunt at once! Would it be too much to ask you to wait until a later time to undertake this hunt?"

"I can make no promises, but if I have not found anyone else by the time you're ready, then the offer will still stand, of course."

"You should come to King Arthur's Yule court," offered Sir Palomides. "There are bound to be many great knights there, and perhaps you will have better luck finding a candidate then."

Graid did his best to hide his disappointment over the next three days that the Round Table knights stayed at his hall. During that time, Duncan and Conover were kept busy compiling an inventory of the ransom. As the trio of great knights departed, Conover brought his compiled report to Graid.

"Uh, sir, there has been an irregularity. Cornishmen are known to be dishonest and cheating types and I believe they have short-changed us! The information I was provided with does not tally with what was in the wagons."

"Send a messenger to Camelot and tell the Pendragon. Tell the high court of our suspicions!" ordered Graid.

As messengers rode back and forth between Camelot and Du Plain, it became clear that King Mark had indeed short-changed his payment, both to Graid and to Arthur. "I'll never trust another Cornishman as long as I live!" Graid swore. Nevertheless, short-changing and all, his treasury had been enriched to the tune of 224 Libra!

The year capped off with Graid's trip to the Maldon tournament in Essex. He had already made use of some part of his ransom to upgrade his wardrobe and overall standard of maintenance and made quite an impression when he arrived. Much to his delight, he then went on to win both the joust and the melee! As he had suspected, the lack of Round Table knights competing in tournaments this year proved quite a boon. Even so, Graid's victory was not easily won. This tournament was the first he had attended that also featured "professional" tournament teams. His old friend Dame Idain was on one such, an all-woman side from Wuerensis wearing matching heraldry and calling themselves the Wuerensis Witches. Other teams included the Malahaut Manglers and the Clarence Crushers.


Graid sought out Idain after the melee and they got to talking. She could think of no knight she knew personally that would be worthy of wielding Madule's sword, and seemed genuinely sorry not to be of greater help. Graid noticed she seemed more deeply troubled than this simple regret, however, and asked how things fared in her life.

"Oh, well. Things are very tough up north in my homeland, and I worry for my family. Crop failures and diseases for some years running now. I heard of a tournament in Malahaut where they actually offered food as prizes, it's getting that bad."

And on that ominous note, Graid packed up and headed back for Salisbury to prepare for winter.

***

With the coming of the frost and snow, Graid departed once more for Camelot. A massive Yule Log burned merrily in the grand fireplace, and all was jolly. Sir Gawaine had seen fit to return from his self-imposed exile in the north, although his brother Gaheris was still nowhere to be seen. Arthur was happy to have his nephew back, and the two sat up at the high table laughing and conversing as the windows outside grew dark.

Suddenly, with a blast of chill air, the hall doors blew open. The flames of the Yule Log turned green, casting the whole room in a strange emerald light. A massive knight in green-colored armor, with green hair and green skin, walked into the hall. He was mounted upon a green horse, and across his lap sat a massive axe. The only relief from the monochrome were the traces of gold accents on his armor and the gold flecks in his hair.

"I have heard great things about this court," he said, looking around at the stunned audience, "and I have come to challenge its knights to a contest. With my axe, take one blow now to cut off my head, and then in one year's time present yourself at my Green Castle to bear the returning blow."

Graid exchanged a shocked and confused expression with the nearby revelers. No one in the hall spoke - this was obviously some sort of devil magic at work. The one voice broke the silence.

"The honor of Camelot is at stake," said Sir Gawaine, standing. "And in like fashion, the honor of my family has been much in question of late. I will take this challenge to defend both honors." He strode from the high table as the Green Knight dismounted. Taking the two-handed axe in hand, Gawaine carefully lined up his shot, then beheaded the foe with one stroke.

The body, gushing green blood from the stump, did not fall. Rather, it reached down and picked up the head by the hair, then remounted the horse. "I will see you next year!" boomed the head, dangling from the clenched fist. And the hall descended into chaos as the Green Knight rode off. . .

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