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Subject: The Middle Marches [IC] [Mature] rss

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Stephen Newman
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Prologue - Strasbourg, 1592. The Eve of All Hallows.

Leaning on his shovel, the Gravedigger hawks, turns aside and spits as the shadows lengthen amongst the trees. Turning back, he peers curiously into the small hand cart: “Is that ‘im?”

The young Watchman, still breathing hard from his recent exertions, swallows and nods. “Aye, that’s ‘im. Jean Reynard. Kinslayer. Sorceror, some say. Hanged this very dawn in the City Square.”

The Gravedigger shivers. “You took yer own sweet time gettin’ ‘im ‘ere.”

The Watchman shrugged. “Weren’t nuthin’ I could do. The Magistrate wanted ‘im left hanging until dusk. Just so folks could be sure he was dead. Soon as His Worship went to Mass, the Sergeant cut Reynard down and we slung ‘im on the cart so’s I could push ‘im all the way out ‘ere. One ‘ell of a weight he is, too.” Remembering where he is, the Watchman hurriedly crosses himself, glancing nervously around. Nothing stirs in the small graveyard, other than the faint rustle of leaves in a breath of chill wind.

“So you’re early, then,” says the older man, wrily. “Why’s that? Wanted to get ‘ere before dark?” His laughter is a hoarse bark. “Can’t say I blame, yer.”

Laying his shovel aside, the Gravedigger shuffles to the rear of the cart and leans in, making ready to shoulder its grisly burden. Then he pauses. “What’s that he’s wrapped in then?”

“That?” says the Watchman. “That’s his wolfskin.”

The Gravedigger straightens and looks hard at the young soldier. “That’s ‘is what?”

The Watchman swells with self-importance. “His wolfskin,” he says, pausing for effect. “He was wearing it when they found ‘im amongst what was left of his wife and child, covered in their blood and entrails. The Magistrate’s ordered ‘im buried in it.” He grimaces. “I’d have burned it, if it were up to me. To be honest, I’d have burned ‘im too. Hanging was too good fer ‘im.”

The Gravedigger leans over and gingerly pokes the corpse a couple of times with an outstretched finger, before fingering the wolfskin pelt in which it is wrapped. “It looks like the skin of the whole beast,” he murmurs to himself, and then directs another question to the Watchman: “And what was the manner of ‘is passing?”

The young soldier rubs his jaw thoughtfully. “Sullen, at first,” he says. “He spoke no word as they led him bound to the scaffold, or as they fastened the noose around his neck. He just glared at the crowd with his cold blue eyes, as the Magistrate read the litany of his crimes. Then His Worship ordered him buried in his wolfskin in unconsecrated ground, and suddenly he laughed aloud…” The Watchman shakes his head. “Gave me a right start, he did. And hideous his laughter was, until the noose cut it short and he hung there, black and silent in the red eye of the rising sun.”

The two men stand beside the small cart in silent contemplation for a while before the Gravedigger shuffles his feet, and glances around. “Unconsecrated ground, you say? Well that can wait until the morrow. I’m not digging a grave for the likes of ‘im tonight on unconsecrated ground.” He picks up his shovel. “You can leave ‘im on the cart. I’ll be back at first light. I’ll bury ‘im in the forest.”

The young soldier looks uncertainly back towards the bridge over the river and the city walls beyond, more than a mile away, and nods reluctantly. “I suppose he ain’t goin’ anywhere tonight.”

“Come on, lad,” says the Gravedigger. “There’s a tankard of ale in the Coopers Arms with my name on it. We don’t want darkness to catch us outside the city walls. Not tonight, we don’t.”

The Gravedigger shoulders his shovel, the soldier his spear. Together the two men stride off into the gathering dusk.


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Strasbourg, 1592. The Feast of All Hallows. 12 noon.

The blare of the trumpets grows louder. The throng shouts. Women fling roses from the rooftops as the procession swings into view on the broad white avenue leading to Cathedral Square.

First come the trumpeters, slim youths clad in green. Next stride the drummers, clad in yellow, beating out the steady rhythm of the march. Behind them, four strong men carry the wooden bier on which stands the image of Our Lady, the focus of adoration on this Feast of All Saints.

Behind Our Lady, come the seven Catholic Bishops of Strasbourg, each clad in scarlet and seated on his throne, each borne aloft by more strong men. As they pass the cheering of the throng diminishes somewhat, only to break out anew as the images of the Saints are borne into view. So many idols in view, on this day. Too many for an unbeliever to name.

At the height of the celebrations, a small nondescript man presses a folded piece of paper wordlessly into your hand and then vanishes into the crowd. Folded within you find a silver piece and a message: Silver Eel. Midnight.

Silver Eel Tavern, later that day. Minutes to Midnight

Ahead, greasy light oozes onto a damp pavement through a curtained doorway. Otherwise the alleyway is unlighted, and stinks of dead fish. This would be the Silver Eel, then.

The City Watch does not patrol this, the oldest, quarter of Strasbourg. A monthly donation convinces the Watch Commander that it is an unwarranted risk to send his men into this iniquitous slum, where truly no man of honest intentions would venture. Law-abiding folks have their inns and taverns – the Red Bear, the Hound and Leopard, the Hanged Man, even the Yardarm. To the Silver Eel gather the creatures of the City’s underworld, the creatures of the night.

Threescore pairs of eyes look towards you as you push your way through the tattered leather curtain, consider you briefly, and then return to other business. A low flight of worn stone steps descends to the room below. Once the townhouse of a wealthy merchant, the Silver Eel has the sunken central room with the high-vaulted ceiling and horseshoe gallery of another age’s architecture. Only in places can the original floor tiles be glimpsed, worn and filthy. Ungainly, mismatched pillars shore up the sagging galleries. Doorways open into other rooms, or lead into cellars that, it is rumoured, run like burrows beneath the tavern and surrounding buildings.

Business of a less open nature is conducted in these dim chambers, and it is into these warrens that you must venture tonight.

You pause for a moment looking around you. A couple of hulking bravos whose dark features bear the similarity of kinship are coaxing a private show out of one of the tavern dancers. Beside them at a table lounge a thuggish trio of indeterminate origin. Another dancing girl brushes past you in a brassy rustle of bell-hung silks. Your gaze follows her departing form but is then drawn to the rustle of a withdrawn curtain, a beckoning figure. Behind him, a single candle dimly illuminates a number of figures seated around a rough wooden table.

As you seat yourself, a serving girl trots over. Thudding her crockery pitcher on the table, she fills you a mug with dark ale, and then collects the empties before departing. The curtain is then drawn back in place, muffling the noise from the main room. A man’s voice speaks in a cultured accent: “Good evening, lady and gentlemen. I am gratified to see that you felt able to accept my invitation. Please introduce yourselves, as our first order of business.”
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Alex Nguyen
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When someone brushes past Iean, even if it is a pretty dancing girl - nay, especially if it is a pretty dancing girl - his first reaction is to feel about himself to ensure his possessions are secure. In this case, he reminds himself that he barely has any possessions in the first place.

Nodding at the inhabitants of the table Iean begins, "I am Iean de Monte at your service." Hoping not to sound too naive he adds, glancing about, "I trust we are all friends here."

Iean's brown eyes are nondescript as are his clothes. He bears a shaved head fairly well, and has a small black goatee to balance things out.
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Sam H
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Tomas Munzer approaches the table. He is tall and dark with the look of a man to be taken seriously. He doesn't like surprises and walking up to a table full of strangers definitely makes him wary. The silver piece was what convinced him though. If there was more of that to be found, it could be worth his while.

Looking at those assembled around the table Tomas snorts: "The name is Tomas, what of it?"

Throwing the crumpled up note he received on the table in front of the stranger, Tomas sits down and takes a long sip of ale. Putting down the mug noisily, he looks around the table.

"I am not in the habit of spelling out my life's story to strangers... Not unless a lot more ale than this is involved, and you are as pretty as that serving girl. So, who are you, and why did you summon me?"
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Christopher Paul
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Violet has straight black hair and light blue eyes. Her dress is unremarkable, except that she wears gloves that almost reach her elbows. Her arms are surprisingly well-muscled for a woman.

She gives a slight nod to the gentlemen seated at the table, "M'name's Violet. Any job, big er small, I'll get it done fer the right amount of coin."

She sits down, takes a drink of her ale, and looks around expectantly.
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Antoine Belgarde is of average height and slight build. His long black hair looks as if it hasn't been washed in weeks. Strands of his oily hair cling to his face, which is mostly unremarkable save for a small scar just below his right eye. His clothes look like they've seen better days.

He approaches the table, silent and expressionless. He sits down, looking only at the man that called him and the others here.

So...What do I have to do and what does it pay? Oh, yeah. The name's Antoine.
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“My name is not important,” says the voice in the darkness. “I have forgotten yours already. I am here to discuss events.”

There is a rustling of cloth as the owner of the voice settles himself more comfortably in his chair. Then the speaker continues.

“Our fair city’s Cathedral Chapter has nineteen Bishops, of whom 12 are Lutherans and 7 follow the edicts of the Bishop of Rome. One of these Papists plots against the Protestant faith in Strasbourg. He plans to raise an army of Papists who will march against Strasbourg in the Spring. I represent certain interests who are, shall we say, opposed to the Papist faction. I have been asked to recruit a small, but determined, band of men and women to prevent this.”

You feel the scrutiny of keen eyes upon you.

“If you have no stomach for the work,” says the voice, “then you are free to leave now, and I must advise you to do so.”

The voice pauses, awaiting your response.
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Sam H
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Hunting papists is something Tomas would do for free. Seeing his current financial circumstances though, it is not an insight he is about to share with these strangers. If he can mix business and pleasure, he would be a fool to refuse.

I'm in... for the right price of course.
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Kelly Russell
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Antoine appears unfazed. Although he is ignorant of the circumstances involving his parents' murder, he doesn't have any love for Papists either.

If you're paying me, I have the stomach for it.
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Christopher Paul
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Violet never heard a kind word for any people of the Christian faith from her grandparents. She would just assume they can kill each other off through infighting, but isn't opposed to getting her hands dirty with one side or another's blood.

"I'm in. Would you be willing to provide a down payment for weapons or must we use our bare hands?"
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"Your fee for this service," says the voice, "will be twenty five pieces of gold each. Five in advance. The balance against proof of success. Shall I continue?"
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25 gold pieces! thought Tomas to himself, trying to not let the excitement show. He had never seen that much money. Not unless he counted the jobs where he was paid a pittance to protect some other bastard's gold.

I'm in. Turning towards the serving girl: Hey! You! Another mug of ale!
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Iean drummed his fingers absently on the table softly, in rhythm with some tune that was likely going through his head. Looking up at the mention of payment he spoke up, "That is certainly agreeable." Looking around at the others, "The mood here has certainly improved!"
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Antoine smiles for the first time since he walked in the tavern.
You certainly have my attention. To the serving girl: Make that two.
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“The road which leads east through the Black Forest,” says the voice, “is well-maintained, but difficult to traverse at this time of year. After two days or so you will reach a cross-roads. If you then turn north towards the mountains, the forest grows wilder. After a further day‘s travel, the trail begins to climb. One further day’s travel brings you to the high moor lands above the forest, the foothills of the Hornisgrinde. The trail grows rocky, for those lands are desolate as the Winter draws in.”

The voice pauses briefly, and then continues: “Five days’ out from Strasbourg you will reach a mountain lake, in the shadow of the Hornisgrinde, called Dagon’s Mere by the local folk. At its northern end, the town of Blackmoor nestles below the mountain. The townsmen fish the lake, and mine for copper. They trade with a few hardy crofters who raise sheep and a few stunted crops on the moor. The town is protected by a wall, and by a castle.”

The speaker’s tone grows a little darker: “Blackmoor Castle is the ancestral home of Charles de Lorraine, one of the seven Catholic Bishops of Strasbourg. It has stood for many years. No one now remembers who built it. Charles de Lorraine calls it his Winter Palace.” The voice sighs. “It is a cesspit of depravity.”

There is a rustle of robes as the speaker leans forwards, his voice slightly hushed and losing some of its hatred: “At Blackmoor Castle this Winter, Charles de Lorraine will gather an army to march on Strasbourg in the Spring. But if Charles de Lorraine does not live to see the Spring then his army will not march.”

A figure, not the speaker, detaches itself from the shadows around the table and moves to place a small leather pouch in front of each of you. There is a clink of coins from within each pouch as he sets it down.

“What further questions do you have?” asks the voice.
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"Is there intelligence on the manner of Charles de Lorraine's movements? What kind of resistance might we expect?"
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"So all we have to do is march up to this castle, knock on the door, walk through an army and snuff out a bishop... Piece of cake!" says Tomas in a sarcastic voice. Looking at the dark figure, "Seriously, how are we to enter this castle? And more importantly, how are we to leave?"
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“Blackmoor Castle may have been built for war,” says the voice, a little scornfully, “but now it is used for pleasure. A way in, and a way out, can be found, if the desire be coupled with courage… and with invention.”

The speaker continues: “Charles de Lorraine will leave Strasbourg by the East Gate with his retinue at 12 noon tomorrow. He will likely travel in an enclosed wagon, accompanied by a dozen armed retainers and, perhaps… others. He must not be slain near Strasbourg. A death on the east road would be investigated most thoroughly by the City Magistrates.”

A note of triumph creeps into the voice: “But once de Lorraine reaches his Winter Palace, he will drop his guard and there will be an opportunity for you to strike.” The speaker chuckles: “And there are those in the town, I am told, with local knowledge that may prove useful and no love for de Lorraine.”

There is a rustle of robes, and a tone of dismissal in the words that follow: “You have the means to equip yourselves. My agents will find you when the job is done.”

A chair scrapes against the floor as the speaker stands. An arm thrusts the curtain aside, and moments later the four of you are seated alone around the table.
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"I fear I am currently ill-equipped for this adventure; tomorrow will be another story." The gold disappears into Iean's clothes. "Do we have more to discuss? Do any of you know our patron?"
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Picking up the pouch, Tomas tries to gauge it's contents by the weight.

No, never seen or heard of him before today.
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Antoine pockets his pouch.

"Nor have I. Shall we arrange to meet tomorrow by the east gate or should just one of us go?"
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"I wouldn't mind seeing him off, either alone or if you'd like some company. Assuming we're all to travel together it might be more important to agree on a departure time. Otherwise we can meet on the road."
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I also wouldn't mind having a look at the man as he is leaving. Let's meet up at noon.
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"Done and done. Well met; if there's nothing else to discuss let's retire."
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Violet pockets her pouch of coins.

Perhaps we should also ask around town, dig up some of his enemies and see what they know? Or...I wonder if there's a chance we could join his entourage undercover...
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