Some time passed between our previous session and this one, so when we sat down to find out what became of Sir Herringdale on his quest it was with more than a hint of apprehension. I had cleverly structured things so that neither of us knew whether Herringdale survived the quest…and the opponent I had in mind meant that I for one was hoping the outcome would remain in doubt even during the session itself. With that in mind, we picked up our dice and proceeded, trading grim looks of understanding…
When we last saw Herringdale, he was leaving the hall of Alain’s palace to don his armor and set off in pursuit of the lady and the Black Knight who abducted her. With the help of his faithful squire Baldrick he was able to get into his armor and mounted up fairly quickly.
The Black Knight still had a head-start on Herringdale, of course, and as he rode out of the palace complex he turned his keen eyes on the dirt roads leading west and north. With just a few minutes of searching, Herringdale spotted a trail of fresh horse tracks that looked to have been made by a charger like the one the Black Knight was riding. The trail led north, towards the hills. Spurring his own mount on, Herringdale rode off in pursuit.
The road was soon curving and twisting up into the rippling hills, and as he rode the hills seemed to rise up around Herringdale. Owing to the late hour of his departure, it was soon growing too dark in the vales to continue on, so Herringdale made camp.
The following day, Herringdale was off as soon as it was light enough to proceed safely. All day he followed the main road as the terrain around him grew increasingly rougher and wilder. He was quickly entering the wilds of Cambria, lands where the laws of civilized man held little sway and the hills were dominated by wild, barefoot tribesmen with their own complex and inscrutable codes of honor and blood feuds. Herringdale and Baldrick kept their eyes peeled for signs of trouble from the locals, but the journey was a quiet and uneventful one. Whoever the Black Knight was, he was managing to keep ahead of Herringdale. Perhaps he knew he was being followed?
Again, the sun sank below the rugged hilltops and obliged Herringdale to make camp beside a trickling stream not far from the road. Again, the following morning he set out as early as possible in pursuit of his foe. Finally, around mid-morning, he came across a fellow traveler, although it was not the Black Knight.
The road ahead twisted around an outcropping of rock, and as Herringdale approached he first heard and then saw a hay wain as it rounded the curve, plodding along behind a large ox. Strangely, the wain flew a banner from a broken lance that had been tied to one of the wagon’s posts. Herringdale immediately recognized the arms on the banner: they were those of King Pellinore!
Unfortunately, the scion of the De Gales clan was looking rather the worse for wear. He was lying in the back of the wain upon a pallet of hay, and his chest was wrapped in blood-soaked bandages. His face was white, his lips pallid, and his normally boisterous, booming voice was hushed and rough.
“Sir Herringdale,” said Pellinore, managing a weak smile. “To what do I owe the pleasure of meeting you on such a lonely road?”
“Sire!” Herringdale said in alarm. “You are wounded! Allow me to tend to you.”
Pellinore was conveyed by his squire and Baldrick to the roadside and, as they set up tents, Herringdale peeled the bandages away from Pellinore’s wound. It was a grievous sword slice that had broken through ribs and exposed the lungs beneath. Herringdale, drawing on his natural skills as a healer, tended the wound as best he could, but quickly divined that there was little he could do: the flesh around it was dying and looked to have been poisoned with a powerful venom.
“Who did this to you?” Herringdale asked, thinking he knew the answer already.
“A knight in black that I met upon the road just this morning. He had a lady with him, and she begged to be released from his captivity. I obliged her request but was bested in combat.”
Herringdale studied the wound carefully. He had seen its like before, many years ago on the shores of Crimson Lake. There, the old crone who had watched that magical lake had been laid low by a knight in black who carried a poisoned blade. Could this be the same varlet?
“I was hastening to attend the wedding of King Arthur,” Pellinore was saying. “I lost track of time…on the trail of Glatisant. The Questing Beast, some call him.”
“I have seen him,” Herringdale said as he poured a measure of mead from his traveling skin for Pellinore to drink.
“Ah yes,” said the King. “That is when we first met, was it not?” Pellinore was quiet for a time as he sipped the mead from a wooden cup. “I almost had him this time. Yes I did!” He sighed, then winced in pain.
“Lie back, sire,” said Herringdale soothingly. “Rest here. I happen to be on the trail of the very knight who wounded you. When I best him, I will take the sword that wounded you so that we can determine how to heal your wound, for I do not think it will heal on its own. I will return for you then and we can make for Carlion together, for it is not far.”
Pellinore nodded and closed his eyes to sleep, his fresh bandages already bleeding through. Herringdale and Baldrick mounted up and rode on, faster now for Herringdale thought he might be able to catch the Black Knight up.
His instinct proved correct. After only an hour of riding, Herringdale came down the road into a dale that held a small copse of elm trees clustered around a fast-flowing stream – and beside the stream and trees stood a black tent. The sun was beginning to sink towards the hilltops again. With an urgent flick of the reins, Herringdale rode down into the dale.
The Black Knight saw him coming and was waiting for him at the entrance to the black tent as Herringdale rode into the clearing. Herringdale dismounted and handed his horse’s reins to Baldrick, then strode forward until he was about ten feet from the knight. From inside the tent came the sounds of a lady’s sobs.
“In the name of Arthur, High King of Britain, I, Sir Herringdale, Knight of the Round Table and Marshall of Salisbury, have come to ask that you relinquish the damosel you took by force. I also must ask that come you come with me to answer to the charge that you struck down King Pellinore de Gales with a poisoned blade.”
The Black Knight sneered at Herringdale.
“You chivalrous knights with your ideas of justice and fair play! How you disgust me.” He spat on the ground. “As for the trollop in my tent, she is a Lady of the Lake, and I am merely fulfilling the orders of my lord and master in eliminating all such witches of her kind. You don’t even realize I am doing you a favor!”
“If you will not come quietly, then…” Herringdale said, unsheathing his sword. The Black Knight responded in kind. Herringdale eyed the blade. It was forged from a dark, almost black steel and seemed to glisten as if it had just been pulled from a bucket of water.
“Have at you!” the Black Knight yelled as he lunged forward. Herringdale parried the blow but fell back to get a better position. The two knights began a deadly dance in the clearing beside the babbling brook. Minutes went by in a flurry of stroke, counter-stroke, and maneuvering. Soon, both were covered in small cuts, their armor rent in dozens of places. Both were breathing heavily, their breath sounding harsh and ragged beneath their helms. Their shields were each criss-crossed with splintered scars from blows blocked and turned aside at the last minute.
Herringdales legs felt like they were going to give out any second. His throat was burning and sweat was running in rivulets down his face. Clearly, the Black Knight was more than a match. He could scarcely remember the last time he had been pressed so sorely in single combat. It was only a matter of time before his aging bones betrayed him, before he slipped up and allowed the Black Knight an opening. He needed to finish this now.
With a great, inarticulate cry Herringdale lunged forward one last time. He brought his sword up in a terrific arc and brought it down at the Black Knight’s head. His foe attempted to raise his shield and move away from the blow, but Herringdale’s sword cut through the wood of the shield and bit deeply into the Black Knight’s throat, sending a fan of hot crimson blood spraying across the mud and grass. With a pathetic gurgle, the Black Knight sank to the ground, his eyes turning glassy.
[Okay, this combat was the first major workout of my houserule for tied Crits in combat. The Black Knight invoked his Hate (Chivalrous Knights) passion; Herringdale invoked his Loyalty (Arthur) passion. Both knights had Sword skills above 20 to begin with. This meant they were practically guaranteed a Crit on every roll. This is a weakness of high-level combats in Pendragon, as normally tied Crits mean no damage to either party, which can lead to very lonnnnnng combats. My house rule is that in the event of a tied Crit, both parties take 1d3 damage, representing minor cuts, bruises, and fatigue acrued from fighting such an evenly-matched opponent. As anticipated, we had a succession of tied Crits, both parties taking 1d3 damage every round in what quickly turned into a battle of attrition. Unfortunately for Herringdale, I was consistently rolling “3” while Des was consistently rolling “1”. Despite starting out roughly even on Hit Points, the Black Knight was ahead after about 10 rounds. He’d even managed to roll a couple normal successes that beat Herringdale, doing a bit more damage still. Herringdale was very close to Unconsciousness for the first time in a while, and Des was seriously sweating it – she expected no mercy from the Black Knight should Herringdale fall. Herringdale’s hide was saved, however, by a favorable combination of dice rolls: the Black Knight rolled a regular success and Herringdale scored a Crit. The double damage was more than enough to get through armor and shield and knock the Black Knight down to exactly zero Hit Points. Scratch one Black Knight. Phew!]
Stooping, Herringdale picked up the Black Knight’s blade. It still shimmered with an evil aspect. Even more disturbingly, it bore no signs of having been bloodied in combat, save a small rivulet that, even as Herringdale watched, was absorbed into the dark metal. Shuddering, Herringdale sheathed the sword in its scabbard and secured it to his sumpter horse.
He then entered the black tent, where he found the lady waiting, her eyes red and puffy but dry.
“Greetings, Sir Knight,” she said. “I am Nimue, High Priestess of the Lake.”
Herringdale bowed and offered his hand. The Black Knight’s horse was grazing outside; she mounted it and was soon riding in Herringdale’s wake as he led her and Baldrick out of the vale. The Black Knight was left to rot beside the stream. Already crows were circling overhead.
Herringdale arrived back at Pellinore’s camp as the sun was going down. That night Baldrick tended his wounds as the two knights and the lady spoke amiably. Already Pellinore was feeling much more his old self. Nimue speculated that the blade the Black Knight wielded was cursed such that any wound it inflicted would fester until the bearer of the sword was defeated in combat.
The party set out at first light the following morning. Pellinore was well enough to sit a horse, and they were able to make good time. Darkness fell but they rode on; they could see the lights of Carlion glinting in the gloom just a few miles ahead.
And so Herringdale, his banner fluttering proudly from the lance Baldrick carried, returned to Carlion in time for the final feast of the tournament. There, before an awed assembly, he told the story of his fight against the Black Knight. Sir Kay took the cursed sword from Herringdale, promising to pass it on to Merlin (who was strangely absent).
A week later, his wounds still healing, Herringdale hit the road for Salisbury, Meleri riding at his side.