Last time we left off with a bit of a cliffhanger. At the beginning of this session, I handed back Graid’s character sheet to Des. We had left off with the eager squire going quite mad with bloodlust, years of repressed anger and frustration bubbling over as he rode to the defense of Guenevere’s court. The last any had seen of Graid, he had been riding off, holding aloft the severed head of his enemy.
Now, as Des scanned the sheet, she could see some changes had been made. Graid now had checks in Compose and Play (Harp). His Honor was one point lower (down to 13!). And he had a new passion: Fey, mercifully rated low at 7. I say “mercifully” because the Fey passion is a double-edged sword, moreso even than other passions. The Fey passion has the ability to nullify other passion rolls due to ennui; every time another passion is invoked, it must be opposed by a roll against Fey. If Fey wins, the original passion does not grant a bonus. The passion could only be invoked itself to inspire a creative act or to augment a skill being used to find one’s way back to the Fae Realm.
Furthermore, and most grievously, those afflicted with Fey must make an additional Aging roll every winter phase, even if they weren’t normally subject to Aging penalties. Graid’s first year with the Fey passion ended up costing him 2 points of Constitution as he began wasting away, exposed to the alien food, drink, and air of the Fae Realm.
[Naturally, Des wanted to know how to get rid of Fey; the answer was three-fold: generate a Love or Amor passion and contest it against Fey, generate a Love (God) passion, or seek out magic that manipulated passions or memory. These tricks duly noted, we moved on.]
The session proper began with a misty, dreamlike reverie. Graid could feel the golden strings of a harp plucked by his fingers, he could smell the rich aroma of a grand feast, hear the tinkling laughter like breaking glass. He blinked. Overhead, a withered and twisted tree traced its leafless branches across a milky sky as a dry wind blew across Graid’s face.
Sitting up, he realized he was still fully armored. Looking around, he saw his horses nearby, his own blank shield propped up against the trunk of the blackened tree. Taking in the surrounding terrain, Graid realized he was somewhere completely alien to his knowledge or experience. It was a vast, ashen wasteland. Dead trees and dry earth stretched away as far as the eye could see. The only settlement in view was a great castle, situated upon a hill perhaps a quarter-mile distant. It could have been a trick of the eye, but Graid was sure he could detect the keep of the castle slowly rotating on a central axis.
Much closer to, Graid saw a knight in gleaming silver armor riding towards him. He noted that this man also bore an unpainted shield in the manner of a squire, though he was accoutered with harness and horse in the manner of a knight – much like Graid, in fact.
Hurriedly, Graid got to his feet, feeling his muscles and joints creak as though he had gone a long time without movement or exertion, as if he had been sleeping for a long while. Stroking his face, he felt a fluffy growth of beard. Setting this aside, he mounted his destrier and trotted forward, saluting the rider as he approached. The strange man returned the salute.
The man may not have been displaying any arms on his shield, but he was clearly well-off. His armor glittered in the sun, breastplate and helm sparkling. His great warhorse jangled along under its trapper of mail, snorting proudly. The vent on the knight’s helm was up, and Graid could make out a youthful face, perhaps around the same age as he, that was entirely unfamiliar to him.
“Hail, gentle sir!” called the mystery rider.
“Hail, good knight!” returned Graid.
“Oh, I am not a knight,” said the youth. “At least not yet. I have taken an oath not to undergo the ceremony of knighthood until I have proven myself worthy of serving the Pendragon.”
“What is your name?”
“I am called Percival and I have just come from yonder castle.”
“What is that place, may I ask?”
“It is a surpassing strange place!” said Percival. “Though I did not know it when I first approached its gates, it seems I am kin of the lord of the castle. He is grievously wounded, but he was a most gracious host nonetheless. And every night of my stay I witnessed two great marvels. First, two maidens would walk quietly through the hall, carrying a man’s severed head on a salver filled with blood. Then two youths came carrying a spear and from the tip of spear flowed blood. No one ever explained to me what these marvels may mean, and I deemed it discourteous to ask.”
“Most strange,” mused Graid. “I have just awoken nearby, though I do not know how I came to be here.”
“That is how I first came to the castle!” said Percival excitedly. Then, lowering his voice, his brow furrowed, he said, “Perhaps we have crossed to the Other Side…” As he said this, a chill, dry wind picked up, scattering some of the gray dead dust around the hooves of the horses, who whinnied anxiously.
“We should leave this place, then,” said Graid.
“That seems good council,” said Percival. “I have left my grandfather’s hall only just now after being berated by my cousin, a dame in residence there, who called me the most foolish of all knights, though for what reasons I cannot fathom. She said that I could have made the whole world better, but now I must search for the castle again so that I may correct the error of my ways. Seems an odd threat – I know just where the castle is!” Percival motioned behind him irritatedly, but as Graid looked to the distant hill he saw that the strange turning castle was no longer there!
“Perhaps it is a quest laid upon you due to your kinship?” asked Graid, suppressing a shudder.
“Perhaps,” said Percival. “Shall we ride, then?”
The two knights rode out across the bleak, blasted landscape. They encountered an abandoned village, its thatched peasant huts collapsing, its manor house a burned-out shell. A trail of smoke curled up from the ruins in the still air.
“How odd,” said Percival, his eyes scanning the ground. “This village was clearly attacked, yet I see no tracks in the dirt.”
They rode on, making camp at sundown. The next day, they found a local track and began to follow it. After some miles, they encountered a neat line of children, all dead, arranged along a mass grave dug at the trackside. At the end of the trench, crumpled around a spade, was the body of an older man.
“We should stop and finish the job,” said Graid. “After all, we are but squires still and may yet dirty our hands at such a gruesome task.” Percival nodded and they set to it, burying the children and the old man. They traveled on, putting many miles behind them until darkness fell again.
The next day they made little headway, as a terrible storm blew up, slowing their progress to a crawl as the dry, dead dust turned to a runny gray sludge into which their horses sank well past their fetlocks. In time, they reached another deserted village. In the mud, they could make out a group of tracks, all heading off in the same direction: away from town and off into the fallow fields. Following the tracks, Graid and Percival found the residents of the village, all dead, in the field. Every peasant seemed to have died while digging a hole in the muddy earth, but for what reasons Graid could only speculate.
“What a terrible land. It seems something not of this world is causing this,” said Graid.
“Yes, this is most unnatural,” agreed Percival, genuflecting.
“My last memory is of it being springtime. It was green and growing everywhere in the land.”
“Indeed, it should well be spring!” agreed Percival. “It was just so before I came to that strange castle.”
Being unwilling to spend the day burying several dozen peasants in the middle of a driving rainstorm, Graid and Percival left the bodies for the crows that had scattered at their approach.
They rode on for another hour but made even worse progress than before. Eventually giving up, they set up camp and waited out the storm, which did not pass until nightfall. They spent a chilly, windblown night in their tents and set out on the damp, muddy trail the next day.
The trail soon joined a proper trade road running on an east-west axis and, much to their delight, the knights spotted rolling hills off to the east blanketed in the green of grass and trees. Pointing their horses due east, they rode on. After all those days of grays and browns, the verdant green of the hills was an assault on Graid’s eyes!
Soon the “Wastelands” were but a memory and the two youthful warriors were riding among dew-dappled meadows. The noise of birdsong had returned to the air and magnificent fluffy clouds scudded by overhead. The road twisted along through dale and over hill and, in due time, Graid spotted a patrol of a half-dozen knights approaching along the road. They bore the livery of the King of One Hundred Knights, master of Eburacum and lord of Malahaut. Among their number, Graid recognized the young lady squire, Idain, niece of Sir Jordans, riding with a lady knight whom Graid recognized as Dame Adrianna, mistress of Kenilworth Castle and its complement of female knights.
“Who is this who trespasses upon the land of our master?” asked the lead Malahaut knight.
“We are just two lowly squires,” said Graid. “We have just come from a most dire and desolate place.”
“Indeed, you look it!” said the Malahaut knight, to the general chuckles of his men. Dame Adrianna and Idain looked on impassively.
“If you had just seen what we have seen, you would not speak so lightly, sir,” said Graid with just the appropriate amount of courtesy as not to offend his social betters on their home turf.
“What of your friend here?” barked the Malahaut knight. Graid looked over and saw that Percival was just staring off, lost in reverie, seemingly unaware of the other knights. Graid’s eyes followed Percival’s gaze and alighted upon a raven feasting on a white dove in the grass. The other knights were all looking at Percival at this point as well.
Clicking his tongue, the Malahaut knight trotted over to Percival. “You there, squire! What do you have to say for yourself?” Percival did nothing. “Hey! I’m talking to you!” shouted the Malahaut knight.
“Please be merciful, sir knight!” interceded Graid. “We are exhausted from our travels and ask only for the comfort of a warm fire in a congenial hall this evening, for we have long been without.”
The Malahaut knight saw the earnestness in Graid’s eyes and noted his scruffy appearance, hollowed cheeks, and pale skin. Glancing back at Percival, who was still lost in the vision of the raven and the dove, he assented.
“Very well. If you and your companion will just follow us, then,” he said, reining his horse back round. Idain gave Graid a smile of recognition as she made to follow the other knights. Percival was still not moving, however.
Graid guided his horse over to Percival and made to whack the squire’s horse on the rear to get the beast moving. Percival, however, intervened, suddenly lashing out with his lance in an almost off-hand manner. Graid saw the silvered shaft whipping around like a scorpion strike a millisecond before impact, and the next thing he knew he was flying from his saddle, hitting the ground hard and seeing stars. The other knights pulled up short and looked back over their shoulders, wondering what the commotion was.
Graid wincingly crawled back into his saddle, choosing to set aside the blow in a show of forgiveness. Breathing deeply, Graid guided his horse back to Percival’s side, gingerly reaching out to put a merciful hand on his shoulder – and was rewarded with another rebated strike from Percival’s lance, which once again threw Graid to the ground.
Feeling the eyes of the other knights upon him, Graid got to his feet again. In a supreme display of modesty, Graid softly spoke to Percival. “Clearly you need some time to yourself, my friend, and it is not my place to disturb you.”
“Indeed,” muttered Percival, speaking at last, stirred by Graid’s kind words. “Ah, Blanchefleur…” he said under his breath.
“Who is that?” asked Graid.
“My lady, my amor. The one for whom I do all my deeds. I have not seen her in many months, and just now the sight of the raven and the dove conjured a divine vision: the black feathers of the raven reminded me of her hair, the white feathers of the dove her skin, and the blood upon the dove’s breast is as red as her tender lips. Ahhh.” Percival heaved a heavy sigh, then turned to look at Graid.
“What are you doing down there, my friend? Mount up and let us ride on!”
Graid grimaced but chose not to press the point. The Malahaut knights turned back and rode off down the road, the two errant squires following. They rode on, the group stringing out into a long line. At a certain point, Graid found himself riding alongside Dame Adrianna.
“That other squire,” she said, nodding back towards Percival. “He seemed to be striking out at you with very mighty blows.”
“Indeed,” said Graid, who could still feel the aches in his bones from where the lance had hit him.
“Do you know his name?” Adrianna asked.
“He is called Percival.”
Adrianna’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “Then this is the youth who King Arthur has been seeking these past three years. Surely you’ve heard the story?” Graid shook his head. “He showed up at Camelot three summers ago,” said Adrianna, “wearing homemade armor of reeds and sticks. Many laughed at him at first, but then, using only a pointed stick, he single-handedly slew a knight who insulted our queen most grievously. The king wanted to knight him immediately, but the youth called Percival rode off instead, saying that he needed to prove himself worthy first.
“Every Pentecost for the last three years, a cavalcade of robber knights and other unscrupulous men have shown up at Camelot to present themselves before Arthur, saying that they were bidden to journey thence and beg forgiveness for their wicked ways, for they were defeated by a squire called Percival who only spared them on that one condition. He has bested many men in battle, and Arthur would most like to knight him.” Adrianna cast her gaze back towards Percival again. “I doubt he even realizes how famous he has become.”
“Doubtful,” said Graid, secretly thankful he had not ended up on Percival’s bad side.
They rode on. At one point, Idain and Graid were riding side by side. He noted that she was accoutered in garb more befitting a squire than the harness he or Percival wore.
“It’s been a couple years – good to see you again,” said Idain. “You look like you’ve been living hard in the wild, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“No, it’s the truth. We just got out of the most desolate of places, though I have no memory of how I got there, which is strange to me. I remember going on a foolhardy quest, but I felt it was my duty to help King Arthur as best I could in saving the queen from her kidnappers.”
“But that was last year!” said Idain. “And have you not heard? The queen was rescued by Lancelot and is safely back in the court of Arthur. But ho! Could you be the young squire of Salisbury who freed three captive Round Table knights and Guenevere’s ladies-in-waiting? I heard this tale over the winter. They say he ran off before he could be given the accolades that were due to him.” She glanced at Percival. “Two runaway squires,” she said with a grin.
“I don’t know of whom you speak,” said Graid. “All I remember is charging a knight’s squire and unhorsing him.”
“Well, the heroic squire has become part of the tale of the queen’s rescue,” said Idain.
“Tell me more of that!” said Graid eagerly, anxious to hear more of the resuce of his beloved queen.
“The knight who took her was named Meliagrance, and he was inflamed with jealous passion it seems. He took her to his castle – in Somerset, I believe it was – but Lancelot soon tracked him down and defeated him, though he was wounded in the process. Meliagrance begged for his life and Lancelot spared him.” She paused, looking out over the rolling hills. “This is my home and I love it dearly, but there are many here who nurse old grudges against the Pendragon, and there has been much scurrilous gossip.”
“Well…it would seem that after his defeat, Meliagrance made the offer for Lancelot and the other Round Table knights who had ridden with him to stay as guests in his hall along with the queen. But – or so the gossips proclaim – the next morning Meliagrance swore that a bloodstain was found upon the queen’s bed linens.”
“Was the queen perhaps injured as well?” asked Graid innocently.
Idain blushed, but said, “Let’s just say that I don’t think Meliagrance knows a lot about women.”
“Whatever do you mean?” asked Graid, still curious.
Idain flushed an even brighter shade of red. “A woman need not be wounded to leave a blood stain upon her bed clothes.”
Graid was quite confused by this riddle but did not press the point, as Idain was quite obviously deeply embarrassed as it was. “I guess I know about as much as Meliagrance, then!” said Graid, laughing. Idain laughed too, and playfully punched Graid’s shoulder.
“At any rate, I have heard that the king and his court have not been swayed by this talk, and that Lancelot is as welcome as ever at Camelot.” Idain took a moment to reflect at the mention of that storied city. “I can’t wait to become a knight!” she said excitedly. “So that I too may one day visit King Arthur’s court,” she added, grinning.
Graid smiled grimly. He wasn’t too sure how well received he would be in Sarum, having left without permission and not returning for what appeared to be at least a year. Idain seemed to guess his thoughts.
“A lot of times it seems to me that being a knight is as much about knowing when to break the rules as when to follow them. For example, they say that Lancelot rescued the queen while mounted atop an ox cart after his horse was killed outside Meliagrance’s castle. Have you ever heard of such a thing? But he can get away with it, because he is Lancelot!”
“If I could only remember what happened, that would put my mind at ease!” said Graid, frustrated.
“I hope you find the answers you seek,” said Idain.
They rode on. In due course, the party came to keep called Castleford, where they were sent on by the Malahaut knights south towards Logres. Graid and Percival, after a night’s rest, rode south, paralleling the Roestoc Forest, braving the occasional spring shower and encountering May Day celebrations in the villages they passed through. Seeing these signs of the season really brought home to Graid just how long he’d been gone.
Although he rode with Percival, neither talked much. Graid was much absorbed by haunting half-remembered sights and sounds of his year in exile while Percival was often taken off in flights of fancy, thinking about his beloved Blanchefleur. They passed through many lands, staying in the halls of a number of lords both great and petty, even meeting the vaunted Duke of Lindsey, though, as squires, the Duke did not have much time for them.
From Lindsey, they took the King’s Road south. Somewhere in Lambor, they encountered a most curious sight. An ox cart came trundling up the road – but this was no peasant’s hay wain. Standing in the back, his silver armor glinting in the sun and banner fluttering from his lance, was Lancelot! Just like in Idain’s tale! As the squires approached, Lancelot’s squire reined his ox to a halt and called out.
“Who are you two, that ride accoutered as knights yet bear the blank devices of squires?”
“I am Graid of Sarum.”
“Percival de Gales, sir.”
“I know both your names!” said Lancelot. “Percival: my lord, the king, most gravely seeks an audience with you. And you, Graid of Salisbury: you are the youth that rescued the great Round Table knights, Sir Tor, Sir Sagramor, and Sir Aglovale. Your name is known to the king as well.”
“We would like to see the king!” said Graid excitedly.
“Very well,” said Lancelot. “He is currently holding court at Gloucester, so you are nearer than you might have thought.” He paused, hefting his lance. “Now. As you are squires, I’ll leave it up to you, but I have sworn to joust all knights I meet upon the road from the back of this ox cart, as penance to my Fine Amor, who disapproved of my unknightly behavior last year.”
Always up for a joust, Graid agreed to the challenge, wondering if perhaps Lancelot knew something no one else did about the advantages of jousting from the back of a cart. [In fact, Lancelot was jousting at a whopping -20 – giving Graid an honest chance of success!] The two jousters crossed lances, one atop a fine steed, the other atop an ox cart. Graid’s lance hit the shield of his foe, but Lancelot connected much more solidly. Even from the back of an ox cart, Lancelot was able to deliver a solid blow, but Graid managed to keep his seat.
“Well jousted, young man!” Lancelot called, laughing. “You may pass.” Graid stood back and watched as Percival jousted with the Knight of the Cart and that pass turned out much the same, with Percival taking a hard hit but maintaining his seat.
As they rode away, Graid levied his opinion on the greatest knight in the realm: “He looks like a god, but he is, still, just a man. His actions will ultimately be what define him.”
At Cirencester, the travelers turned off the main road for Gloucester. “I understand if you are not yet ready to present yourself before the king, but I must go.”
“No, I feel that my encounter at the Turning Castle was a sign that it is time for me to return to the court of the king and perhaps explain myself.”
And so they rode along a winding trade route through the beautiful Cotswolds and down into the Severn River valley. The old Roman town of Gloucester was overflowing with visitors, drawn by the presence of Arthur and his court. They could see the banner of the Pendragon flying proudly from the tallest tower of the square keep overlooking the Severn. Entering the keep, they awaited audience with the king, Graid all the while still trying to make sense of the fact that he apparently had taken on several opponents and bested them all!
Soon the squires were called into the hall. Sir Kay, standing near Arthur, blanched when he saw Percival and quickly made himself scarce. Graid only saw this briefly, however, for his eyes were quickly drawn to the majestic beauty of his cousin, Queen Guenevere, seated at Arthur’s side. He knew in the first moment he beheld her that he would do just about anything she might ask of him with pleasure. He would want her if such a thing were possible, but she was, after all, the king’s wife! With great effort, he tore his eyes away to look at the king. Graid was pleased to note that his scruffy beard was not terribly out of place here; the king was sporting a bushy beard and longer hair, and many of his courtiers had aped this look.
“Well,” said Arthur, eyes twinkling, “the two squires I most want to see, here at my court at the same time! What a pleasant surprise.” Graid and Percival both bowed.
“Graid. Word has reached me of your heroics.”
“And I as well, highness,” said Graid. Arthur laughed, then continued.
“Tor, Algovale, and Sagramor told me of your brave actions in the service of our beloved Queen.” Graid’s eyes flicked to Guenevere, and his heart skipped – she was smiling at him! Her beauty was even greater when she graced the world with a smile. Arthur continued. “For those actions, you deserve nothing less than to be elevated to the status of knighthood.” Graid looked back at Arthur, disbelieving.
“And you, Percival,” said Arthur. “You as well are responsible for many great deeds over these last years, and have proven many times over your worth of the status of knighthood. And so I say to you both, hie thee hence to the chapel and spend the knight in solemn contemplation of the duties that will be required and expected of you. And on the morrow, at first light, you shall receive your knighthoods.”
And so the two dumbstruck squires were escorted to the castle’s chapel, where they were relieved of their travel-stained armor and clothes, bathed, and given fresh linen chamises. Over the white chemise (denoting Purity), Graid was draped in a black tunic and hose (to denote Death), and then given a red cloak (to symbolize both the Blood that may be shed and the noble blood that ran in his veins), and finally girded with a white belt (denoting the Chastity of a good Christian man). As the belt was being fashioned around Graid’s waist, a strange mental image leapt unbidden into his mind’s eye: a room full of strange women, all of a great and terrifying beauty, seductively dressed, beckoning to Graid – and of him running from the room in fear!
As he mulled over this chilling vision, Graid was led towards the altar, where he saw that his sword, spurs, and harness had been placed. Here he was instructed to pray until the coming of the dawn. Graid managed to stay awake through the night, but often found his mind wandering away from his prayers as he thought about the extraordinary events that had led him here – and of that strange room in his vision.
At dawn’s light, Graid and Percival were led from the chapel back to the hall of the great keep, where King Arthur was waiting in full regalia. The queen was absent, but Arthur’s bastard son Borre was in attendance. Arthur’s regal gold crown, studded with gems and jewels, gleamed in the morning light, and from his broad shoulders hung a rich, ermine-trimmed cloak of lush velvet. Many Round Table knights were also there. Graid recognized Tor, Aglovale, and Sagramor, all smiling. He felt for a moment that they had the wrong guy; after all, even seeing these knights up close brought back no memories of his supposed heroics.
“Graid of Broughton! Come forth and stand before the throne,” called the king’s chief herald. His heart hammering, Graid did so. Out of the corner of his eye, Graid saw his harness, spurs, and sword being placed nearby. The herald unfurled a scroll and read off of it in perfunctory fashion: “Be it known to all men that I, King Arthur, am minded to raise Graid of Broughton by virtue of his honor, loyalty, valor, and skill at arms to the high rank of knighthood.”
The herald then turned to Graid. “Do you swear and acknowledge King Arthur to be your true and lawful lord and liege?”
“Do you also swear fealty to the House of Pendragon, to defend and obey it til the appointed representative depart the throne or death shall take you?”
Arthur rose from his throne and stepped forward, towering over Graid, who looked up. “Let this be the last blow you receive without just recourse!” said Arthur, and with that he smacked Graid hard on the shoulder. Graid, trying not to wince at the force of the blow, then kneeled and placed his hands palm to palm, upraised as if in prayer. Arthur placed his hands over Graid’s.
“Repeat after me,” said the king, his eyes boring into Graid’s. They spoke:
“I, Graid, do solemnly swear and pledge my sword to King Arthur, my liege, to defend and obey him until he depart his demesnes or death shall take me and to uphold the honor of knighthood.”
Arthur then spoke to the hall at large. “And I for my part do swear to defend and honor Graid as befits a true knight.” At that point, Graid’s sword was handed to Arthur, who tapped Graid lightly on the shoulders. “I dub thee Sir Graid. Receive now your spurs, your right to suitable arms, and take this, my sword.” Arthur then girded the sword around Graid’s waist as his spurs and shield were brought forth. The smell of the king’s perfumed hair filled Graid’s nostrils. “To serve and defend me well – arise, Sir Knight.”
Graid stepped back and watched as Percival went through the same ceremony. With that, the hall was filled with applause and cheers. As the applause died down, Arthur spoke again. “Sir Percival. As I said earlier, your actions have gone far beyond those that would qualify you for knighthood. In fact, they have earned you an even greater honor: a seat at the Round Table.” More cheers and backslapping ensued. Sir Graid looked on, feeling a bit put out. Sir Tor, sporting an elegantly trimmed and waxed goatee, sidled over.
“Don’t worry, son. You’ll have a seat at that table soon as well, I know it. Just continue to fight the way I saw.”
Graid nodded. “I appreciate your support, sir.”
Knights conversed in small groups. Percival was being hailed by Gawaine and other famous knights. Arthur was consulting with Kay and other knights were conversing in small groups when, quite unexpectedly, silence began to descend, starting at the far end of the hall. Graid craned his neck to see what was going on.
He saw a white mule, richly accoutered, bearing an old hag. The woman was wearing a beautiful dress that looked awful in the way it hung off her scrawny frame. She was easily the ugliest woman Graid had ever clapped eyes on: one eye bulging out of her head like a tumor, while the other eye was sunken back into her face so far a cat could have curled up in the socket; her nose, broken and crooked and the length of a man’s hand, boasted a nostril that hung loose like a curtain of flesh, flapping every time she drew breath, while the other was a massive gaping hole, a pelt of nose hair blooming from it; her skin was like dried brown autumn leaves; her rubbery lips were curled back from white gums that held only three teeth – one white, one brown, one black; her bony right shoulder was hunched so far up it brushed her torn ear, while the other was flaccid and meaty; one of her breasts hung down to her waist while the other was as dry and shriveled as an ancient walnut.
The white ass came to a halt halfway along the hall. The hag raised a bony arm and pointed her finger and its cracked nail at Percival. “For shame!” the hag croaked. “For shame that the worst knight in the world sits here at King Arthur’s court! Yes, you Sir Percival! I speak of you! You witless, selfish, ignorant sack of chivalrous stupidity! You could have saved the world, healed your grandfather, and rescued your own sinful soul! But instead you chose silence, and now the world is the worse for it forever! When children are dying in their mother’s arms, they will curse your name because you were silent in the court of the Fisher King!”
At that, the hag’s mule turned and clopped out of the hall. All sat in stunned, embarrassed silence. At that, Percival rose.
“My apologies, my lord, for having brought embarrassment to this court. It proves what the loathly lady said, for I have already soiled the good name of your hall. Begging your leave, I would ride out at once to again seek the Palace of the Fisher King.”
Arthur, still standing stunned, looked blankly at Percival.
“Sir?” said Percival. “I must redeem myself.”
“Yes. Yes, of course. Go at once with my blessing, and may Dame Fortune smile upon your path. But you must promise to return here when you are done and share the tales of your travels.”
“I shall, my lord!” With that, Percival departed. Chatter immediately broke out as the courtiers began excitedly talking about what just happened.
“Well, I must say,” said Tor, still bemused, “the realm certainly is becoming more colorful.” He chuckled. “I have even heard it said that Lancelot is out on the roads, challenging all comers to a joust from the back of an ox cart!”
“He is! He was!” said Graid excitedly. “I jousted him! I nearly beat him, too!”
“How rich!” said Tor, laughing. “I should seek him out. I’d give up half my manors in Ireland for a chance to joust him like that! Ho!”
Arthur, somewhat put out by the appearance of the Loathly Lady, dismissed court early and Graid excused himself soon after, anxious to get back to Sarum and claim his birthright: Broughton Manor.
The ride from Gloucester through Cirencester and the Campecorentin Forest was uneventful, as was the journey through Silchester and the Harewood. Graid passed the boundaries of Salisbury, his passage unmarked by any border patrols, and came at last to the first manor of his home county, which Graid knew to be called Grately, a small holding belonging to Sir Ferren, father of Lady Alis, the object of Graid’s adolescent courtship that had landed him a challenge by Sir Magloas at the Rochester Tournament. Graid was only too happy to pay a visit to this manor, newly knighted and all.
“Of course,” Graid mused to himself as he guided his horse towards the hall, thinking of the young Lady Alis, “now that I’m a knight, maybe I should keep my options open. On the other hand, she is a wealthy heiress…”
As he rode, Graid couldn’t help but notice the unmistakable signs of a tournament being prepared. Here then was his chance to make his debut as a knight! He also noticed signs of construction on the hall itself. It seemed Sir Ferren was preparing to add a wing to the manor house.
Sir Graid was greeted by a squire, known to Graid as Paul, in the courtyard outside the manor house and escorted inside. As he dismounted, Graid saw three heads hanging from the eaves of the manor’s roof, their eyeballs pecked out, their long blonde hair swaying in the breeze. Graid remembered that Sir Ferren, like himself, nurtured a deep and abiding hatred of Saxons and had a standing reward for the head of any Saxon forest bandit brought before him. Graid smiled approvingly.
“Greetings, Paul,” said Graid.
“Greetings…sir?” said Paul, noting Graid’s freshly-painted coat of arms upon his shield. “Congratulations!”
“Thank you,” said Graid. “I was just knighted this week by King Arthur himself.
“God’s hooks!” swore Paul. “But…where have you been this past year? The whole county has been buzzing!”
“I don’t know!” said Graid, truthfully. “But I was told of the deeds I seem to have done, if that makes sense. The next thing I remember was waking up in a wasteland.”
Graid relayed the tale to Paul, standing in the hall. As he finished, he became aware that Sir Ferren had entered.
“That was quite a tale!” said Ferren, striding forward.
“I beg forgiveness for coming unannounced,” said Graid, temporarily slipping back into the protocol of a squire before catching himself, “…but I have come to enter your tournament!”
“Excellent news! You are welcome to set up your tent on our grounds. As you are without a squire, feel free to ask Paul if there’s anything you need assisting.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Graid with a bow. As he left the hall with Paul, Graid noticed, up in the gallery, two ladies looking down. One was a formidable older woman, Sir Ferren’s wife Lady Zoe, and the other was the fair damosel Alis, looking on demurely and shyly. Her beauty was nothing compared to Guenevere, but, awkward and gangly as she was, she showed all the signs of blossoming into a great beauty in her own right.
As Paul took Graid outside, the sound of priestly intonations could be heard. A group of clergy were over near the construction site, swinging censers and chanting from a large illuminated bible.
“My lord is taking no chances,” said Paul. “He has invited the bishop to bless these grounds before the foundation of the new wing of the manor house is laid down. This tournament is intended to mark the occasion of our expansion.” Paul pointed to a mound of old moss-covered stones. “That old mound is going to get cleared away during the course of the tournament, and then construction can begin in earnest.”
Graid cocked an eyebrow, a bad feeling creeping up the back of the neck, although he couldn’t quite place why he felt that way.
“The tournament is due to start in two days’ time. We’ll have some games for the peasants, and then we’ll have the melee,” said Paul.
Down at the tournament grounds, many knights had already come and set up their tents. Graid saw Sir Magloas was in attendance, and Alis’s cousin greeted Graid with a great deal of undue bluster.
“Hah, thought you’d try yourself against me again, eh? Well, just make sure that you’re on the opposite team in the melee, so that I may pay you back for Rochester! Ha ha!” Clearly Magloas was still smarting from going down to defeat at the hands of a squire.
Graid also greeted Sir Yolains, castellan of Devizes, an old veteran of the Roman wars – it was said that at Devizes hung several Roman legionary shields, trophies brought back by Yolains. Graid was all too aware that the old knight’s beautiful daughter, Orlande, had recently died, along with Sir Loholt, in far-off Cornwall at the hands of Sir Gondrins, the Earl’s son, who was still missing after the incident.
Graid pitched his tent next to that of Sir Briadanz the Hunter, a cheerful and helpful knight who was only too happy to speak of “the chase” and, when in his cups, his encounter with a man-wolf on the Yorkshire Moors. Sir Graid knew all too well Sir Magloas’s opinion of Briadanz, whom he called a great liar. Graid, for his part, tended to believe Briadanz, or at least liked to think that he did.
As the tournament approached, Graid circulated among the other entrants at the nightly feasts hosted by Sir Ferren in his hall. He rubbed shoulders with knights of Earl Robert’s household, with knights from Marlborough and Silchester and Wessex. Many had already heard of Graid, despite his youth and newly-minted knighthood, thanks to the legacy of his father. He spent much of his time answering questions and relating the tale of his past year’s activity to the best of his ability. They were particularly excited to hear about what the famous Percival was like, and the story of Sir Lancelot jousting from the ox cart. But mostly Graid just slept in his tent, for he had rarely had a chance to rest properly in the past month…or indeed, it seemed, in nearly a year.
The tournament, as it got under way, was clearly a backwater affair. There was little to compare it to Rochester. In place of helm shows and processions there were instead peasant competitions like sledge pulls, stake driving, ladder races, and log cutting. Sir Ferren watched with his family and household from a small grandstand, while the attending knights amused themselves by laying bets, although Graid abstained from indulging. As the day wore on, the peasantry got increasingly sloshed on cheap ale, many of them taking an overly familiar tone with the knights. Some were rebuffed violently, but Graid chose to humor the wretches and converse.
“You’re alright, sir!” said a burly man, his arms covered in coarse hair, his hands the size of hamhocks. “Have a drink!” He drunkenly proffered a leather cup filled to the brim with some sort of beverage that for all the world looked and smelled like stale urine.
“I’m sorry, I must abstain,” said Graid. “Uh, I must stay sharp for the melee tomorrow!”
“Oh yes, of course! Oh, sorry, I sloshed some on your coat there, sir!”
“No worries, no worries,” said Graid, a smile plastered on his face.
The awkward moment was broken by a trumpet blast. Sir Ferren had risen and was addressing the crowd from the grandstand. “Welcome one and all to Grately Manor! I am so glad you could all come and attend this tournament and mark this happy occasion with me! Let the day’s main event begin!” The trumpet again sounded and everyone cheered.
The main event, as Graid understood it, was to be a race between the two leading peasant families of the village. The men of each family were to clear the old stone pile, and the family that cleared the most would be declared the winner and earn bragging rights for the rest of the year. Graid anxiously eyed the men, wooden sleds at the ready, as they awaited the signal to begin. Oxen brayed and dogs barked as the crowd shouted encouragement and remonstrations. A third trumpet blast signaled the start of the contest and the men launched themselves at the stone pile.
Graid couldn’t quite place where his sense of unease was coming from. The crowd pressed forward to watch as a great cloud of dust was kicked up by the frantic workers. Laughter filled the air and a peasant trio started up a jaunty reel on their quaint instruments. Even from his position back near the grandstands, Graid could see the mound getting torn down with a frenzy worthy of a search for buried treasure. The ringing of shovels clanged through the grounds, and the late afternoon sun turned the rising dust a golden hue.
Despite the scene of bucolic levity, Graid slowly became aware that he wasn’t the only one with a sense of unease. A few others around him, Sir Ferren included, seemed to be growing cagily alert, as if they were sensing approaching danger. Ferren had even moved to shelter his wife and daughter, looking as if he wanted to escort them back to the hall.
“Sir Briadanz,” said Graid, “do you sense something as I do?”
“Aye,” said Briadanz, “there is a charge of fear, not unlike when I was out on the moors. The joy in the air suddenly rings hollow.”
At that moment, Graid and Briadanz started at the sound of stone shifting and buckling. Screams of terror could be heard from the worksite, as the moving rock crushed limbs and cracked skulls. A sudden grinding crash and then a hideous green snout poked from the pile. A hideous reptilian monster shook itself from the rubble, worming its way out from among the mossy rocks. Its frightful head was raised in challenge, letting loose a deep, reverberating, guttural hiss that sent the remaining peasants fleeing in abject terror and filled the area with a terrible stench as smoke poured from the monster’s mouth.
Graid was almost bowled over by a large sow as she plowed by; man and beast alike were fleeing blindly from the green wyrm atop the rock pile. Graid, for his part, couldn’t blame them, and turned to flee as well. He stopped, however, at the sight of Sir Magloas striding forward, hefting sword and shield.
“By my faith!” yelled Magloas. “This fell beast is mine alone or let my life’s blood be spilled!” Graid recognized the right of the knight to claim single combat and do his duty in defense of his kin. Frozen in morbid fascination, Graid watched as Magloas mounted his steed and rode towards the demonic serpent. The wyrm snorted in response, sparks flying from its nostrils.
Magloas guided his horse up the rocky slope. Despite the rough terrain, he managed to put his lance into the creature’s side, piercing its scaly hide and leaving about half the lance behind as it snapped in twain. As the creature bellowed in indignation, Magloas unsheathed his sword. A great yell rose up from the onlookers as the wyrm breathed a gout of flame that temporarily engulfed Magloas in an inferno.
Armor smoking slightly, Magloas battled on, his horse whinnying in terror – he was having to spend as much time keeping his mount under control as aiming blows against the monster. Nevertheless, his sword aimed true and drew black blood from the demonic hide of the wyrm. Unfortunately – inevitably – Magloas’s mount took a misstep on the rocky and uneven ground and snapped its leg, going down in a heap right before the wyrm. Magloas, pinned by the horse, could barely raise his shield in defense as the creature struck out, its needle teeth biting through his metal armor as though it were paper. Graid watched in terror as the creature’s jaws tore Magloas’s torso from his legs and sent him flying in two different directions. The wyrm then turned its attention to the horse, tearing into its flesh.
The other spectators were similarly stunned by this turn of events. None of the knights moved. How could such a terrible creature be defeated from its lofty perch? “If we could but lure the creature from its perch,” said Graid, snapping out of his shock, “we could all charge it at once and kill it!”
“That’s right!” said Briadanz. “Everyone mount up and ready your lances! We’ll present a tempting target to this monstrosity and hopefully it will take the bait.”
The wyrm made short work of the horse, and then turned its attention to the knights in the field. Under the direction of Briadanz and Graid, they began parading before the wyrm, riding up to the stone pile’s edge, then riding away. The wyrm watched, hissing in frustration. In due course, it began to slither down off the stone mound.
“Now, CHARGE!” called Graid, and the assembled knights all charged at once, lances lowered. “For God and King Arthur!” cried Sir Yolains. The wyrm was skewered in a dozen places and died screaming in agony.
The remainder of the tournament was cancelled, obviously. However, Sir Ferren had the wyrm’s hide tanned and made into favors to be given to each of the knights who pierced the beast with their lance. Graid received a sword scabbard, its leather a gleaming iridescent green.
“Though they cannot hope to, I wish these small gifts to serve you as well as you have served me. Let them be reminders that each of you are invited back to Grately Manor one year from now as honored participants in the Tourney of the Wyrm, as I will now call it. And with God’s mercy, there will be no unwelcome entrants to that list!”
With that, Graid returned to Sarum, where he received the deed to Broughton Manor. “May you return to it the honor it once enjoyed under your father’s care,” said the Earl.
And at last Graid came back to his family’s ancestral demesne. It was quite the worse for wear. Weeds grew in the courtyard, the moat was filled in. The roof was caved in, the stone walls marked by fire. As he stood in the hall, its tiled floors cracked by grass and roots, moss and fungus sprouting from the pillars and the rafters, Graid knew there was much work to be done. But he was up to it. He was, after all, at last home.