Although the Christmas Court had been fraught with an ill omen, the winter season in Salisbury, and at Du Plain castle in particular, passed by with relative ease. Graid, now a widower, took on a second squire, and the granaries and cellars were filled to bursting with provisions for the cold months.
All the talk around the winter hearths, of course, was about Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight.
"It's too bad we'll be losing Gawaine this year."
"Don't be so sure! Remember when he defeated the Grey Knight?"
"Only with Herringdale's help, and he's not around anymore."
Most agreed that Gawaine had redeemed the honor of the Orkney clan after what Gaheris did. Graid remained skeptical; Gawaine had ever been the hero, but this did not mean the other brothers are worth a damn.
It was late in winter that the monstrous boar, who bards were calling the Troit boar, awoke from its slumber deep in the Morgaine Forest and came forth to ravage Graid's lands once again. This time, it tore through the village of Broughton, destroying one quarter of the buildings there! Over 100 peasants were displaced, and Graid was obliged to lay out 30 Libra to aid in recovery from the disaster.
It was time to do something once and for all about that troublesome boar. He had an enchanted blade and instructions on who to give it to. Then it would just be a matter of mounting a grand hunt and introducing the blade and its wielder to the monster.
Graid could at least take solace that he was not alone in his troubles. All over the land, there were increasingly rampant sightings of strange things: dancing faeries, elven knights, unusual cattle. Strange deeds were afoot, dear readers.
After Pentecost, Graid warmly welcomed Palomides and Dinadan at Du Plain Castle, the two knights having vowed to return. Palomides was, of course, a Knight of the Round Table, a Saracen, and a great hunter; he had taken up pursuit of King Pellinore's old quarry, the Questing Beast, when not otherwise engaged. Of Dinadan, Graid was less familiar, although he got to know the Cornish knight's laconic, sardonic attitude soon enough. He seemed a good knight, one who balanced humor with practicality. Clearly, he picked his battles wisely.
The matter settled, the trio departed for Cornwall, where Tristram was often to be found attending to his liege, King Mark. On the road, Dinadan relayed an amusing anecdote about his deeds at Duke Galeholt's tournament in Surluse that culminated with a bit of jousting with a cross-dressed Lancelot and in turn being forced to don the maiden's dress when he himself was unseated, all much to Queen Guenevere's amusement.
Once in Cornwall, the knights picked up rumors that King Mark was not happy with Dinadan. Apparently a satirical lampoon called "The Lay of Dinadan" was circulating, one that made Mark the butt of a variety of jokes. Dinadan, for his part, could not lay claim to composing the song that bore his name, though he allowed that he may have improvised the ditty while drunk and that someone took it and spread it around.
Regardless, Mark's court was not a friendly place for the travelers, and so warned they veered instead for Tintagel Castle. Dinadan advocated for using an ancient, unused track that, he claimed, would take them straight to Tintagel and, perhaps more importantly, keep them off the main roads, where the king's men may well have been keeping an eye out for him.
"There's just one thing," Dinadan said, wincing a bit. "The reason no one uses the track nowadays is that they say it's plagued by a fearsome giant, and has been for some time." Nevertheless, both Graid and Palomides voted enthusiastically in favor of taking Dinadan's forgotten trail. And so they set off, disregarding the dire warnings of the local peasantry.
They made their way across the scenic moors. At one point, they spotted a large slab of exposed bedrock bearing a clawed, six-toed footprint as long as Graid's horse. That night, huddled around their campfire, they heard a distant moaning wail. As the keening cry gradually died down, the knights exchanged nervous glances.
"Could be anything," Graid said lamely. His attempt at brushing off the knights' growing tension only succeeded in inviting each to imagine a variety of horrific owners of the wailing voice.
The next morning, they entered a part of the moors thick with dense ground-cover and shrubs, restricting their visibility to just a couple dozen yards at best at any given time. Again, they heard the intermittent roaring, and as the day went on, the roars grew closer.
"Still think that could be 'anything'?" asked Dinadan with a wry smile.
"Nope. That's definitely a giant," said Graid.
Soon, the roars were plainly coming from just a short distance away, although the ground cover still blocked any possible view of the source. "Shall we?" said Graid, hefting his spear. The other two knights smiled back, and the three dismounted, leaving their squires to tend the horses while they plunged off into the thickets.
Graid found hacking through the brush exhausting. Palomides, used to hunting in the rough, blazed the trail. In due time, Dinadan pulled ahead as well. Soon, Graid was alone, with only the nearly deafening sound of the roaring to guide him. Had it not been for those noises, Graid might have been thoroughly lost in the undergrowth, but presently he broke through.
What he saw beyond was a strange tableau. Dinadan and Palomides both bore spear and shield and were cautiously advancing towards what was indeed a massive giant. However, this giant was more than half-buried in the earth, with only its head and one arm aboveground. It looked thin and under-fed, and upon its noggin was a leather cap, rumpled and askew, as if the giant had taken a nasty hit to the head at some point.
Graid realized that some of the giant's roars were actually deep basso words: "SPARE ME!" the giant wailed.
"Fellow knights, hold!" Graid called out.
"What is it, sir? This giant is clearly helpless! Now is our chance to strike!" called Palomides.
"Yes, it is helpless!" replied Graid, running up to join his compatriots. "And so it poses no threat. But whatever put him in the ground like this may still be lurking about. Besides, the poor brute is begging for mercy."
"And...he's hungry, too..."
The knights considered the pathetic sight before them.
"What do you feed a giant?" asked Dinadan.
"Besides people...?" asked Graid, grimacing. He noticed the ground was completely barren for the entire radius of the giant's single free arm. "Send for my squire, tell him to bring forth all the food from my sumpter."
Dinadan hopped to it, and returned shortly laden with provisions from all three of their pack horses. They tossed the foodstuffs up into the giant's cavernous mouth, and it gobbled the morsels greedily, laughing a great booming laugh as it did so. The laughter was almost as disturbing as the outraged roars.
Presently, the giant, with some of its great hunger curbed, began to relate a story. He told of how a much bigger giant had pounded him into the ground many years ago, a giant called Llew of the Long Hand, once king of the entirety of this island. The buried giant counted himself lucky though - Llew had thrown his companion up into the sky, and the tossed giant had yet to fall back to earth.
"Perhaps that footprint we saw earlier was that of this Llew fellow," said Palomides.
"Perhaps he turned into the mountains," reflected Dinadan.
"How can we release you from this pit?" asked Graid. No answer came, not from the giant nor from his companions. It was clear that it would take an army of excavators to dig him out. "How many people have crossed your path?"
"I HAVEN'T SEEN ANYONE IN MANY YEARS."
Graid's heart was torn with pity for the poor creature. "I promise you: I will send people to get you out. I promise."
And so, with deep regret, Graid returned to the trail with his companions. They mounted up and rode off. Soon, they could hear the giant roaring with hunger again.
In due course, they arrived at scenic Tintagel Castle, perched over crashing sea cliffs, a chill ocean wind whipping at their cloaks. Once ensconced in the hall and warming up before the fire, the steward of the castle informed Graid that Tristram was neither at the castle nor even in the country.
"He is waging war on Mark's behalf across the sea in Brittany. You can find him there, should you choose to make the journey."
Thus resigned to their fate, the knights made arrangements to cross the British Sea and find Tristram. It took a week to secure a suitable ship and await favorable weather. In due course, though, they sailed south to Brittany, docking at the port of St Brieuc. There, they learned that Tristram was besieging the city of Brest in Leon.
The ride across the Breton countryside was lovely, with green swards under milky skies seeming to run on for miles. As they approached Brest, they caught sight of a fortified city on a great bay, surrounded by the besiegers' encampment: a sea of tents behind a large palisade wall, engines of war here and there hurling great stones against the walls of the city. Trenchworks were being dug towards the walls, which were defended by swarms of archers. A no-man's land stretched between the forward trenches and the stout walls, where bodies of men and animal carcasses lay untouched and rotting.
|Art by the amazing Jose Daniel Cabrera Peña|
"Sir Tristram," said Graid, taking the seat offered him as his host signaled for wine and cheese, "I am Sir Graid of Broughton and Du Plain and I have come with a request for a boon." Graid then spun the tale of the boar and the sword. "I have every confidence that you are the one to rid this pestilence from my lands.
Tristram asked to see the sword, and Graid signaled for his squire to bring it forth. The blade and its gilt, ruby-encrusted decorations shone even in the dimly-lit interior of the tent, and Tristram smiled.
"I will happily aid you in this venture," said Tristram, resheathing the sword. "But I cannot leave this country until I have taken this city for my king. If you knights would be so kind as to assist in this venture...?"
"Gladly," said Graid, as Dinadan and Palomides nodded their agreement.
"Excellent!" said Tristram, standing up. "My engineers inform me that their mines are nearly beneath the outer works. In just a few days' time, we hope to have those walls breached, at which point an all-out assault will be launched."
Preparations got under way, with units being formed for the impending assault. Graid was put in charge of a banner of men, commanding five knights and a dozen footmen. Two days after Graid's arrival, just as the sun was going down, the mines were lit. With a tremendous crash, the outer walls of the town came rumbling down, spreading a billowing dust cloud out over the camp. A massive 50-foot gap loomed ahead as trumpets blared, signaling the assault.
Tristram's forces had been drawn up in anticipation of the breach, and Graid was out front, running across the no-man's land and then over the treacherous ground formed by the collapsed wall. He thought only of his sons back home, and of making it back to them in order to kill the monstrous boar and secure the fortune of his family.
As he scrambled up the rocks, three Breton footmen came down towards him with leveled spears, screaming their war cries. Graid dispatched one with ease but received two spear thrusts in return. One skated along his armor without any effect, but the other punched him hard, nearly hurling him back down the rubble pile.
Regaining his footing, Graid came back with a vengeance, putting one down with a bash from his sword hilt and beheading the other. And then Graid was at the top of the rubble heap. Unfortunately, he was quite alone - the men of Brest had mounted a staunch defense of the breach, and many of the assaulting knights and their footmen had fallen. Graid did not linger long, either, as arrows began to come down from the undamaged battlements at either end of the breach. Dragging a wounded knight behind him, he followed his compatriots back behind the encircling palisade as the sun slipped below the horizon.
That night, the sound of frantic building could be heard as the defenders erected a hasty palisade of their own to cover the breach. Periodically, the shouts of men and the ringing of steel would create a brief pause in the construction as raiding parties were sent across no-man's land to disrupt the Breton engineers' work. Graid only managed to doze lightly in his tent, what with all the noise and the adrenaline of the earlier events still pumping through his veins, not to mention the pain from his fresh wounds.
Sunrise brought a new opportunity to mount another assault. Graid's banner had been reduced to just three knights and 10 footmen, and the other banners had suffered similar casualty rates. Charging the rickety palisades, Graid again thought of his family back home. Footmen behind the wooden wall jabbed out at the assaulting wave with two-handed great spears. Graid wove under one thrusting point and returned the favor with his own spear, driving it into the face of his opponent. He felt a hard blow on his hip as another spearpoint pierced his armor. Warm blood soaked into his armor padding.
Graid turned to face his opponent and jabbed with his spear again. To his horror, the point lodged in the palisade wall and broke off! His squire still lagging behind on the rubble pile, Graid pulled out his dagger and, grasping the edge of the palisade, heaved himself up and slashed out, causing his opponent to recoil. Then he drove the blade deep into his foe's throat and pulled himself up over the wall. More allied knights and footmen followed his lead, vaulting the palisade as the garrison gave back. The wall was breached!
The city of Brest, having held out rather than surrender honorably, had forfeited any claim to mercy and was as such subjected to pillaging at the hands of Tristram's army. Graid did not take part in the looting, instead retiring to his tent to have his wounds tended to. As Brest burned in the background, the sunlight through the columns of smoke tinged a fiery red, Graid then went to Tristram's tent and secured the legendary knight's vow to come to Du Plain and hunt the boar. "I shall be at your castle in precisely a month's time," said Tristram.
"On my honor, I shall hold this sword in safety until you arrive," said Graid, not quite willing to hand over the enchanted blade to a servant of King Mark.
And so Graid and Palomides returned to Britain - Dinadan opting to stay on the Continent with his good friend - and began making ready for the great hunt. Many local Salisbury knights turned up at Du Plain as the appointed date drew near: Sir Briadanz the Hunter, Sir Jaradan, Sir Gilmere, and even the Earl himself. As promised, four weeks to the day after giving his vow, Tristram arrived at Du Plain, traveling in the company of Sir Dinadan and several master huntsmen, as well as a pack of 50 hunting dogs.
That evening, over a lavish feast, Tristram discussed his plans for the hunt, illustrating his points by positioning goblets and salt cellars on the wine-splattered trestle table.
"If what Dinadan tells me about this boar is even half the case, we will not be able to bring down the beast in a single stroke. This will be a contest of endurance, a battle of wills. I propose posting relays at strategic points, and then funneling the boar towards said points. Each relay will consist of a team of four to eight fresh hounds and their handler. It will be our job to harry the boar and ensure the hounds can do their work. Once the boar has been driven to ground, we come in and finish it off."
"What's the downside to your approach?" asked Graid.
"We'll lose about an hour of daylight as we get the relays into position. There's no telling how long it will take before the boar is at bay, and that lost hour may prove critical."
"Nonetheless, I think it is a sound plan," said Graid. "Let us follow Tristram's lead." Earl Robert nodded in assent, and so the matter was decided.
The next day, as the sun rose over the Salisbury Plain, the Knights of the Great Hunt assembled. Tristram had been out since dawn, setting up relays with his men, and Graid could see him riding back. The initial pack of hunting hounds had been brought out, and were baying like mad, sensing what lay ahead. Graid saluted Tristram with his boar spear as the renowned hunter rode up.
"Shall we begin?" asked Tristram with a broad grin. Horns blew and the hounds were loosed and Graid galloped off in their wake - the hunt was on!
In accordance with Tristram's plans, three groups of knights peeled off and rode out. Tristram led one, Palomides the second, Graid the third. This was the unharboring, the attempt to drive the monstrous boar out into the open. Dogs barked and howled as Graid and his confederates trotted off over the rolling countryside, through downs and woods. Soon, Graid picked up the distinctive trail of the boar - it was hard to miss.
Graid saw Tristram's group closing in, following the trail as well. Soon the quarry was spotted; it was not the monstrous boar, but rather one of her offspring! The "piglet" was still the size of a small shed, and monstrously ugly.
"Death to the swine!" shouted Graid, raising his boar spear on high.
The beast had been put at bay by the hounds. Its razorback up against the thick trunk of an ancient oak, the beast fended off the dogs with its wicked tusks, emitting an ungodly squeal with every swipe. "On Gilmere! On my companions!" shouted Graid as they galloped up the rise towards the tree, Tristram and his men not far behind. Graid took the first thrust, as was customary for the host of a hunt.
The stench of the beast up close was nearly overwhelming, but Graid skillfully guided his horse close enough to make his attack. The long blade of the spear sank into the boar's thick hide, drawing a small trickle of blood. Squealing with fury, the giant piglet spun around, trying to sideswipe his tormentor. So huge was the creature that its tusks were at the same level as Graid's shield. Graid felt the impact, but his armor absorbed most of the blow, and he managed to keep his seat in his high-backed saddle. The other hunters closed in, adding their own spear thrusts to the effort.
The boar was relentless in its focus, however, and continued to buffet Graid. Although he managed to stay in his saddle, the piglet's abundant spittle was carving pockmarks in Graid's armor, soaking into cracks and crevices and raising angry welts wherever it touched his skin. Graid rose up in his saddle and brought his spear down again, burying the blade all the way up to the crossguard. As the spear came out, a satisfying gout of blood shot forth. Again and again, Graid stabbed his spear into the piglet's flank, simultaneously trying to keep control of his horse and stay out of the way of the flashing tusks.
The piglet, bleeding from multiple wounds, turned to flee. Graid pressed on as the boar fled down the back slope of the hill. It turned and buffeted him again, but he would not be turned back. As it turned once again to flee, Graid at last landed a telling blow, sinking his spear point into the beast's jugular. Blood fountained up over his spear shaft. The beast, in its death throes, turned and tried to run down Graid and his horse. Desperately, Graid pushed back with his spear, holding the massive beast at bay with the crossguard of the boar spear. His horse whinnied in terror as it dug its hooves into the ground, gouging ruts in the soft earth.
Graid's eyes widened as he watched the shaft of his spear begin to bend, then bow - then shatter! The boar surged forward, splattering blood and acidic saliva everywhere, knocking Graid from his saddle and sending his horse tumbling. The young knight thought that he was about to see the last of the world, as everything went topsy-turvy amidst a tumult of squeals, screams, and crashes. But then all was suddenly eerily silent.
The sound of approaching hooves. Men shouting. Graid being lifted to his feet. "What...?"
He looked around. The demon piglet lay dead, half of Graid's boar spear still sticking out of its neck. "You look like you could use a drink," said Tristram, dismounting.
Back at Du Plain, as Graid recuperated from his battle, his squires tending his wounds, Tristram outlined the next phase of his plans.
"I think, from my experience with hunting boars, that if we kill the mother, any other piglets will starve to death, so we needn't worry about that."
"Then why did I just nearly die for the sake of killing a piglet?"
"Because now we can use the carcass as bait!" said Tristram with an excited glint in his eye. "We will lay it out, and make a trail with its blood for the sow to follow. I will set up men with bows along this trail to pelt it as it runs in, and then we can finish it off. What say you?"
"I'm all for it," said Graid. From the parapet of the castle, he watched as the massive piglet was "broken" - cut up into component parts - and then strung up on cross beams about 500 yards from the walls of Du Plain, extending in a rough semi-circle around the perimeter. The blood produced by this process was more than enough to soak the ground and create a trail between the parts. Once this was done, men took up their places. Tristram, Graid, and Palomides mounted up - Graid wearing his acid-pitted armor - and hung back a ways from the bloody display, spears couched in readiness.
The sun was beginning to set when a great swinish roar echoed out over the countryside. Then a shout came from the castle walls. "There it is!"
Tearing across the fields, churning up earth and knocking through walls and fences as if they weren't even there, was a moving manor hall. No, wait - it was the boar! It was the size of a building and just as powerfully built. Everyone, even Tristram, stared in shocked silence for a moment. Then the arrows started flying. In moments, the boar's hide was prickling with arrows. Then Tristram raised his sword, its blade gleaming in the fading light.
Tristram, Palomides, and Graid spurred their mounts forward, riding out for death or glory. The boar seemed to sense Tristram's intentions and drove straight for him as Graid and Palomides rode around to attack its flanks. Tristram guided his horse away from the boar, unable to get a clear shot with his sword. Palomides landed a telling blow and the boar twisted to meet the new threat. A flick of its massive tusks sent the Saracen into the ground.
Graid stabbed out again, but could not penetrate the boar's elephantine hide. He watched in horror as Palomides disappeared beneath the boar's massive hooves, trampled into a bloody pulp. More knights, overcoming their fear, began to rush in. Graid spotted Jaradan, Earl Robert, and Briadanz in the fray; a circle had formed, and knights were taking turns stabbing the boar's flanks, keeping it pivoting off-balance and unable to focus on a single foe, trying to create an opportunity for Tristram. Graid saw Briadanz catch a blow from the boar's tusks full in the chest; the force of the hit was enough to catapult him from his saddle and send him flying like a ragdoll, punted 50 yards or more. [The boar got a Critical hit and scored what I believe is a personal best for Pendragon damage: 104 points on 30d6! I had to randomize targets every round or it would have been a total bloodbath.]
Spurring his horse forward, Graid made a feinting blow towards the boar's face. As the boar whipped around to face Graid, he saw Tristram dart in, quick as lightning. Graid's perception began to slow. A shimmering glint caught his eye: a gold comb stuck in among the coarse fur between the boar's ears. As everything went into slow-motion, Graid turned and saw Tristram, his eyes intently fixed on the comb, the ruby-studded sword held out at his side. The sword lashed out in a downward arc, the blade seeming to guide Tristram as much as he was guiding the blade, and it cut through the gold comb and deep into the boar's skull.
With a terrible cry of anguish that left Graid temporarily deaf, the boar crashed to the ground. And then all was still as the earth itself seemed to exhale a sigh of relief.
The next day, Palomides and Briadanz were laid to rest in the chapel yard at Du Plain - no one knew what ceremonies Palomides would have wished for, so they recited the standard Christian eulogy. "His god will understand," said the priest sadly. Over the following week, Graid put on a nightly feast to honor the memories of his fallen comrades and celebrate the great victory. Lords and ladies came from all over Salisbury to feast on the spoils of the hunt: roasted boar, boar sandwiches, boar salad, boar gravy, boar hash, boar a la king, and, of course, gallons of boar soup. By the end of the week, everyone in attendance was quite sure it would be a long time before they would be able to have any more boar-anything.
During the course of the festivities, Graid was as often the center of attention as Tristram. Earl Robert presented Graid with a new harness of armor in the latest style, and also made it perfectly clear that he expected to see Graid married by year's end. To that end, the Earl introduced him to the daughter of a rich vassal knight. Lastly, as the week's festivities wrapped up, a royal herald arrived from Camelot, bearing an invitation to visit the king himself.
And so, two months later, recovered from his wounds, Graid made the one-day journey to Camelot for his royal audience. At the gilded reception hall, Graid presented himself.
"Sir Graid of Salisbury," pronounced King Arthur, "With the sad passing Sir Palomides the Saracen, a seat has opened up on the Round Table. I dispatched a messenger to summon you here, for with Palomides' death, his name disappeared from his seat - and yours appeared in its stead."
"It did?" asked Graid, blinking up confusedly at Arthur. The king smiled.
"Indeed it did." He rose from this throne and bade Graid follow him from the hall and into a massive circular chamber hung with fine tapestries, a domed ceiling painted with a beautiful mural high overhead. The legendary Round Table sat in the middle of the great room, and Arthur led Graid around its circumference until they reached a particular seat. There, in gilded letters, was Graid's name.
Graid knelt again and kissed Arthur's signet ring. "Arise, sir," said Arthur, still smiling. "The opportunity to welcome a new knight to this august order is ever a balm against the sadness we feel when one of its members departs our ranks for good. We lost Sir Lucan the Butler this year as well," Arthur noted sadly, looking at a seat on the distant far side of the table.
Thinking to himself, Graid couldn't help but wonder if Gawaine would be the next name stricken from the roll of honor. His meeting with the Green Knight was approaching...