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"I can ride," Nin says matter-of-fact. "Though I am more accustomed to goats," she adds.

"I am not sure what to make of any of this, and that bothers me." Nin hates everything she can't make sense of. Such things can hide a trap or a trick or just important facts that one ought to know.

"The beast is the source of the corruption of this place, though I also believe it may be possible to calm it, challenging though that might be. But this King is determined to kill it, that much is clear. Perhaps at any cost, which makes her as dangerous as the beast itself. I am certain, at least, that we want no bystanders near the battle when those two meet."

"I think we should learn as much as we can about both King and Beast before deciding on a course of action."

*

She sizes Mort up as he approaches and speak to them.

4+1+2 = 7

I'd like to ask a question of my own: Is he trustworthy? And I'm holding my other question for now.
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"There is another option," Tristan says to Nin, before Mort has had a chance to ride up, "we could go and find the badger now, after all. If the Beast is what's driving it out of the woods, then this might be our best chance to slay it on fair ground. Leave Pellinor to her hunt, and let us have ours. It's not safe for either of them to live. Pellinor disquiets me, but I see nothing to show why her goals do not align with ours."

"If our goals align, it'd be best to hunt the beast now, and maybe ask if the King would help us? I am confused as to what virtue there is in saving the beast, or from sabotaging someone who has done us a kindness."

*

Tristan will not pause to size Mort up before answering, and will immediately reply: "My liege is the common good, in service to all. The hunt for our quarry was interrupted by yours - we seek a badger the size of four horses, at least." Tristan tries to err on the safe side of hyperbole, here. "In truth, I am afraid of it. If we assist you in your hunt, might you assist us in ours?"

He's a trusting boy, isn't he?

If he's wrong, let Nin tell him why, that he may trust her more.
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Nin and Tristan

To Nin's question, he is as trustworthy as you could justifiably expect. That is, he is young, newer to the King's service, probably gullible, and you can see no malice or concealed intent behind those bright eyes and too-long mussy hair. He clearly serves his knightly oaths, you can see that in his bearing, the way he holds himself too straight. As such, the amount you can trust him is exactly to the point where he perceives your goals to diverge from those of his liege lady, at which point he will do all in his power to serve and protect her whatever that may mean to you.

To your reply, Tristan, he looks a little disappointed. "Ah, you are peasant hunters then? I'm glad that you're hunting monsters. These are the High King's woods and though anyone can hunt a scourge to all, if you were after anything else, you'd be poaching. You're not poachers, right? Oh please, I don't want to have to tell the King you're poachers after she was so nice to you."

He probably doesn't really think you're poachers (it's anyone's guess whether he's ever met a poacher, he ought to know better based on the quality of your gear and bearing). His disappointment most likely stems from the fact that he had hoped to meet skilled and senior knights or nobles in another's service and learn from your experience. And his assumption that anyone without a lord to serve is at some level inferior. How do you respond to him?

Constance

Constance, Cath is indeed weighty. She feel as though you are lifting at least ten stone in such a tiny body and it is a struggle to gather her to you, though you manage the task with all the strength that your ancestors gifted you. Your reward for your efforts is that Cath gathers herself in your arms, extends her face, and gives you a gentle bop with her head right on the cheek. She is also digging her claws somewhat uncomfortably into your arm, but this too is a sign of her immediate affection.

You would have thought that the ghosts would now be making their demands of you. But in fact, they have turned their attention to Robena. You can see now outlines of individuals for they have closed in. A young girl perhaps just shy of her teens, cut and scarred, her dress ripped around her legs. Her parents, lord and lady Brythys, dressed in funereal garb and holding themselves somberly. And one you'd guess is a grandmother, the image of the wealthy crone with long wispy hair beneath a bonnet and a long black dress obscuring a spindly body. You can feel a murderous intent coming from them, especially the crone.

Robena is ill-equipped for this. You must help her at once!

Robena

You cannot see the ghosts so clearly as Constance, but you know nevertheless that they have turned their attention on you. The cold chill is deep in your spine now, and you can see the outlines creeping towards you. Faint whispering comes to you, and you realize that they are the ghosts of the Brythys who once lived here and that they know you.

"Where were you?" the whispers echo around you.
"Where was our lady's strongest knight when she was most needed?"
"Off in the east, the lands of sorcery and pleasure"
"She was weak."
"She abandoned us."
"She betrayed us."
"You abandoned your oaths."

This last is in the voice of an old crone, the family matriarch of the Brythys. You might remember her, you surely met her when you were young, she would have been in attendance at all the Lostwithiel jousts and festivals. This is very dangerous and there is little time to act before they will be upon you.

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Tristan is not insulted by this at all - these are his values as well, his father's values. It's part of why he has to train so feverishly, to find his worth where he can. He's achingly proud of his duties to the common good, but there is a greater pride in serving a worthy lord, and serving them well. King Pellinor (for now) seems worthy.

"I hunt within my rights, and make no trespasses." This is true, as far as he knows. He's hunted deer and wolves before, but he was definitely allowed to do that. Definitely. He'll double check when he gets back. "I appreciate the kindness, your King has shown us more than was expected or owed. How fair is your lord, typically?"
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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There were all sorts of rules about knights not running away. Robena was of the opinion that they applied mostly in military contexts and that applying them to supernatural issues was why manticore lairs tended to be surrounded by skeletons in full plate. Nevertheless it is still deeply, deeply difficult to bring yourself to withdraw when your trained reaction to danger is to set your feet and raise your shield. It's pointless, she knows it's pointless, but she is far too scared to do anything as brave or complicated as running away.

"Constance? Constance!?" she calls, trying to back up so she's got a wall behind her. "Help! Please!"

She's honestly too scared to really take the accusations to heart right now. She will likely brood over them later, but the frightening thing here is being approached by a group of ghosts and not having to litigate the honour or lack thereof of following her sworn liege on pilgrimage.
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"Honored dead of Britain!" You advance on the ghosts like a wave upon the shore, bearing Cath like a royal orb in one arm, chin held high as you squeeze the cat close, your way of letting Cath know that you will not let her fall. "I am this woman's arbitrator. Whatever your quarrel with her, I will guarantee restitution." There. You know that not even the dead would dare strike you (not without provocation, at least), and you know that this is the only way to protect Robena from the anger of the dead. "Share with me her failure, and we may agree on how it may be made right."

How that twists your heart! To speak as if Robena was not here, as if she was some fool vassal and not a brave and clever knight. As if you had the right to speak for her in such fashion. If Robena takes offense and complains, she might bring the wrath of the unquiet dead on you both, and you just have to hope as hard as you can that she's better than that. That she can trust you. That you've been trustworthy, a pillar of strength that has awed her into compliance, despite the best efforts of donkeys and horses.

[Constance does her best to Win Them Over and rolls an 8. She wants the ghosts to agree to be appeased if their grudge is made right. How could I assure you that I can appease your grudge?]
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[I'd like to pause our conversation with Mort until we've concluded our own, since it seems like one might affect the other]

"I see no reason we have to deal with the badger at all," Nin says, shaking her head. "It is only causing trouble because it was driven out of the forest by the beast. Taking care of the beast should take care of the badger as well. Moreover, leaving Pellinore to her hunt could itself cause as much damage or more as the badger. At the very least, the badger is the lesser concern right now.

"No. Our focus must be on Pellinore and her hunt for this beast, one way or the other. What I wonder is, does the beast cause destruction by its very nature, or would it calm down if no longer hunted? And why is the King hunting it? Because it was already a danger and needed to be put down, or simply because of a prophecy? You see where I'm going?

"If the beast is hunted because it's a danger, we must help King Pellinore catch and slay it as quickly as possible to prevent even more damage. But if the beast is only a danger because it's being hunted, and it's only being hunted for sport, is the real beast not the hunter, then? You say she disquiets you. Perhaps you are not wrong to feel as such, even if you can't explain why, exactly, you should feel as you do."
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Tristan and Nin

Mort looks relieved that you're definitely not poachers, and his cheeks rise in a happy smile. They fall again quickly though and he hesitates at Tristan's question, slumping ever so slightly in his saddle. "She's...demanding, sir. I can't say that she's unfair. She expects much, and it has been an honor to ride with her."

The both of you have met many a lord and petty noble in your lives working for Lostwithiel. Most are "demanding," but saying that about them isn't exactly what you'd expect of a sworn knight in their service. His hesitation says that something is amiss, but it's hard to say what the problem is. Perhaps he thinks King Pellinore is under too much pressure and wants to excuse her wrongdoings? Perhaps he is just young and unversed in being diplomatic in this way. You could press him fairly easily if you wish, he's an open book of pride, tradition, and youthful puppy enthusiasm.

Constance and Robena

The ghosts turn to Constance and her feline companion, and they permit Robena to back up around the courtyard and put Constance in between them and herself. There is a terrible bitterness in the crone's eyes.

"Honored?!" She shrieks, and even Robena can make out the words and the form clearly. "You dare call us honored?! Where then is the good pine box for my son that would keep the maggots from his eyes?! Where then the stones that would mark our passing and tell travelers of our great family? Uther's men left our bodies to rot child, and you call us honored." The crone moves her head to spit, were she corporeal. "But very well, you offer yourself for this knight's abandonment. Offer then."

Constance, you know the old ways. There is only one price to be paid here and it is in blood. Yours, Robenas, innocents, traitors, revenge, it is all blood to the ghosts. You could make an oath to pay it back to their betrayers, but that would indeed be an oath to slay King Uther and his most loyal vassals, and that oath would haunt you. The ghost will hear of nothing else, and your power to inspire has no hold over the chill of the grave.

[Constance, the crone denies your right to exhilarate and intoxicate when you win someone over, and they will refuse any boon you beg of them. You may ask your next question, but that is all. Tell us how you respond to this denial.]
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Nin presents a knot of very compelling logic, but Occam's razor cuts it thusly:

The questing beast is a big, scary monster, and Pellinor was nice to me. I am myself a hunter, and I am obviously not a villain for it.

Her point about the badger - wasn't that his thinking? Did the badger scare him so much to change his mind on it? When did that happen? When he sighted it with his arrow? He shifts his weight as he rides.

"Maybe," Tristan says, unconvinced. "I could see it being true. But even if it is true, the best we can do is join her hunt in good faith. While we do, the badger is our true target, and we are acting within our own rights to hunt it. I don't want the sword we choose to fall on to end up in anyone else's back..."
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You are torn for a moment, Constance. The weight of the implicit demand is like a stone crushing your chest. In the old days, the blood-and-stone days, the days before the coming of the Arimathean, this would begin a blood feud. The relatives of those who lay here would take up arms to avenge them, would give up their own lives to slay Uther in their name. If you agree to this, you will destabilize the kingdom and plunge it into blood and ruin.

And you hate the thrill of excitement. The temptation. It flowers inside of you, pressing roots against that crushing stone. Say the words. Prove yourself a daughter of giants. Bring the dark days back in the name of the dead. Be a figure known from Cornwall to Lothian, deathless, dread. Be an ender of kings by command.

It is the presence of Robena that makes you flinch. Perhaps you could justify leading nebulous knights to their doom, but knowing that Robena would die to right this wrong makes you pause. Not without her leave, but you fear she would give it to you anyway. No. You will not make Robena join the unquiet dead. You will not set Britain alight in the name of the otherworld.

Not yet.

“You have been ill-done by,” you say, your mouth dry, but your shoulders squared. “It is not to be borne. Robena! Go and find their bones in the grass, picked clean and left scattered. Bury them under a Christian stone. I will see to their last meal.”

You will need sheep. More than one. An ox would be better, a white bull best, but you are no noble to have those at hand. Sheep you can afford. And you will need Robena to hold them steady. Your little knife will do the rest.

And perhaps on your way you can return this cat that rests on your chest like that pressing stone.
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Constance is terrible indeed to leave her with the duty of gathering bones - and more terrible still to leave her in the company of vengeful ghosts. The accusations ring in her ears now that she has time to hear them, now that her heart is not stopped by fear. Of course she is innocent of guilt - she walked a path of holy pilgrimage by the direct command of her sworn lady.

But she does not feel cleansed by the east. She does not feel inspired by the temples of Jerusalem. She did not succeed in safeguarding her lady. What then was her journey for? If not holy revelation and if not knighty guardianship, then what? It was a journey for journey's sake, interwoven with vice and horror, in the end consumed in draconic metamorphosis. Can she truly claim pilgrimage as her defense? Would her answer be different if her journey had at least been holy?

It had not passed her mind that Constance had denied her a knightly calling. To take up arms for the wronged and achieve vengeance - that would have been a great duty, a great quest. Without glance it had been ruled out, the oath denied her - why? Did Constance think she would be incapable, unwilling? If she had courage to speak before the dead she might have given in to their oath anyway instead of picking gnawed bones from the grass and thinking not of how they used to be.

She wishes she were a surgeon who could know one bone from another and lay them out as precisely as in Imperial apothecaries. She is not, and has seen too many battlefields to believe that such things are always possible. So she stacks them high and begins to dig, sweat shining upon her brow in place of tears.
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"For now," Nin says, equally unconvinced. "I am sworn to keep others safe, be it from King or from Beast, and I intend to do so. But you're right, for now we can only follow and hope we see what needs doing before it is too late to do it.

"Just be wary, that is all I ask," she adds.

*

"No we are definitely not poachers," Nin says sullenly at the mere suggestion. She says no more about who they serve; if Tristan hasn't seen the need to share that information, Nin sees none either. Perhaps it is best to keep their cards close to the body, for now.

"She seems very intent on hunting this beast herself. Why is that, if I may ask? It cannot be just any ordinary beast, or she could have tasked any skilled hunter to hunt it for her."

My second question from sizing him up: What does Mort expect us to do? Probably not much beyond the obvious, but asking anyway.
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Constance and Robena

Constance, you nearly hesitate. There is a moment after you make your answer where the ghosts advance on you and you think that you will break. You imagine in your head those cold hands reaching through you and into you, taking apart little shreds of your soul and replacing it with their own until you are nothing but their plaything, and as you think it, so it starts becoming true. It is the warmth of the cat, the fat and heavy Catherine held against you that snaps you out of it, for she is full of life and all wriggles and hisses. And as soon as you leave behind that cold, the ghosts retreat and pay you due respect. Tell us how the chill of the grave still lingers on you and how it affects your ceremony.

Robena, given your strength, the task Constance has set you is easy if demeaning. The ghosts do not accost you in the sunlight as you gather their bones upon the grass and offer them burial, though you can feel that they are near by the chill that that you sometimes feel run up your spine. Do you have words for Constance when the task is done and the dead buried? Do not forget as well that the traveler asked you for two things. A cat, yes, and also a small lockbox.

Tristan and Nin

"It has to be a member of her family, good sirs. It is but recent, so if you have not been to Camelot you may not have heard. The questing beast first appeared late in High King Uther's reign, a handful of years ago though I was still a squire at the time. Merlin, the great seer, made a prediction that a member of King Pellinore's blood would hunt the creature and so she was tasked with the work and has been after it since with few breaks, only changing out her knights as they weary. It has to be her, for Merlin said so, good sirs."

He looks at you hopefully as he speaks, and though it's unreasonable, he seems to think that having found you here so close to it that you might have some special knowledge, some insight into the prophecy for the creature will be caught and he's waiting on you to reveal your secrets.
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Everyone knows, deep down in the quiet places of their heart, that death is not the worst thing that can happen to them. Death is understandable. Death is comprehensible. Death has a shape and that shape is your shape, in the end, in the earth. Death is huge and solemn and vast-mouthed, and it is final.

The unquiet dead deny that truth. They spit upon it. Whatever they will do to you, your mind whispers between its teeth, it will not be death. They will not be so kind as to kill you. The chill touch of their fingers promises something unspoken, unspeakable, shaped like smoke. That is why you walk through buying sheep from a local shepherd like a sleepwalker, eyes vacant, your smile never reaching them. The formless shape of their fury lingers on you like a shroud. It is the fear of seeing a pale face among the trees when you stand framed in your own doorway. It is the fear of a presence in the quiet hours of the night. It is the fear of that which is worse, in all ways, than death.

So when you induce the sheep to kneel by the simple graves, your hand is not steady as it saws through the neck and spills the blood freely onto the thirsty earth. It shakes as if frigid. And you know that this sacrifice must be enough, that they cannot, must not ask you for more, for the head of a king, because if you refuse them... you do not know what will happen. And that is the worst of it all.
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This is a somber moment, and not the kind that Robena imagined she would find here in England.

Oh, that had always been a naive thought, hadn't it? England was not apart from the world for all the Channel's width. This was a land like any other, with knights and with things for knights to stand against like any other. Her very own shoulders were wrapped with the skin of a monstrous bear that she had strangled with her own hands not too far from here. Wallachia had its vampires and Jerusalem had its crossroads and England had...

A tyrant?

She frowned and flicked her eyes away. Far, far above her station to contemplate that. Her lady answered to the duchess and her duchess answered to the king. There were quests and then there were wars. A quest was to venture into an unquiet grave and lay the dead to rest. This, she could do. This she could be proud of.

She wrapped her arms around Constance in a giant's embrace. Half seeking the comfort of human warmth in the shadow of death and bone and blood - and half offering it to one who needed it as much as she.
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"Merlin says so?" Tristan looks askance at Nin. "Then it must be." This is a conviction, now.

'There is a whiff of rot to all this, but surely Merlin is with us?' The alternative is too heartbreaking to think about.
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Nin seems more thoughtful. "Do you know Merlin's exact words?" She didn't expect he would. Doubtful this young knight had heard it first-hand. "'A member of King Pellinore's blood will hunt the creature' is easily fulfilled, in fact it has already been fulfilled or we wouldn't be talking right now. It also doesn't specify when, or that it will be King Pellinore herself. 'King Pellinore will catch and kill the creature' on the other hand would leave little doubt."
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Tristan and Nin

Mort gives a rueful shake of his head as your horses clop forward through the wooded path. You're beginning to near a break in the forest line. "I can't say that I do. Honestly, I've never even spoken to Merlin myself and he's been gone from court since not long after that prophecy. Personally, I thought that whoever did the hunt would be the one to do the catching and killing. And, if you're wise, sirs, you'll not imply that King Pellinore ever fails to catch what she hunts in her earshot."

Mort gives you a solemn nod and doesn't seem to have much more to say for now, though he doesn't move to ride away either, just continues with you.

Constance and Robena

Blood of the sheep. It's not so rich as human blood, but it is blood, and the sacrificial lamb long predates modern religion as the offering to be made to the gods in place of darker faire. So too, it will do for the ghosts. You've done something for them, and their spirits are grateful, though the hate that suffuses them has not been cleansed, merely...sated perhaps? They are, at the least calm from this and Constance has fulfilled her promise to arbitrate on Robena's behalf.

For the moment, you are in an embrace. Robena, Constance feels cold, much moreso than you thought, it's clear her brush with the ghosts took a toll on her today. Constance, what is it like being held in such a bear hug?
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You’re not used to this. You’re not sure that you should be used to this. This warmth, this opportunity to be vulnerable. You are a stone standing alone. The responsible thing to do is to step aside before you get a taste for being comforted and yielding your strength, or at least that’s what you keep telling yourself, isn’t it? But the words are sluggish and cold, your pride still numbed by the touch of whatever lies beyond the grave, and you are not strong enough to stop yourself from nuzzling closer.

“How dare he?” The words escape you before you can stop them. Your mouth is too hot. “When will he be satisfied? When will he relent?” Unasked: will he? When will Uther Pendragon step back, sated by whatever he is looking for?

And what will you do if he cannot be sated?

“...thank you,” you add. You half-heartedly gesture at the graves, but you mean more than that. But you still know better than to elaborate. To dangle hope in front of Robena. Hope for some unspeakable, unthinkable wonder. That you might be willing to stay. Because you will not. Not forever. You cannot let yourself rest in this warmth, this strength, these fingers on your head. There is too much that you must do, alone, to become... not alone.
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"Of course. I'm certain Merlin's words left no room for doubt, in any case," Nin says diplomatically. "One last question. What can you tell us about the creature's appearance, before the prophecy? Where did it come from, and what was it doing before Merlin spoke its fate? It must have caused quite the stir at the time."

This, of course, was what she really wanted to know.
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