Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Play Report: Red Robes

The Vesten watched from atop the crest of the hill. Behind him, the big Ussuran was muttering and kicking stones at the feet of the church. But the Vesten was watching for movement on the horizon. The town of Almiera was nestled at the foot of the dusty cliffs, a tightly-packed village center, clustered about the well and the chief households. The bowl of the valley spread away in three directions: waving fields of late-summer wheat. Beyond them where the broken hills of western Castille. If he squinted just right, the Vesten could even make out the gleaming city of Salamancar in the distance.

His real target was the road. A winding track from the seaside city, it led by back league and mile to the Crescentgate. The powder train had come up that road. Now, it was a smoldering wreck of charred wood and corpses. He closed his eyes and probed the wound in his chest with his fingers. Grumfather's balls, that hurt! The little Vodacce scholar may have removed the musket ball, but the wound was still fresh and throbbing with pain. Not one of them had come out of that fight unscathed.

The first they heard of the town of Almiera was back in Salamancar. One morning, they all tumbled downstairs to breakfast in the King's Arms to find a stranger in their dining room. A heavyset man with a black mantle cape and a black patch over one eye. He spoke Montaigne to Beatrix, but with an accent out of Avalon. "That sword," he told her, gesturing to the famous Aquilard. "You'll have to give it to me. You know who sent me." When she refused, the Avalonian shrugged. He had men with him, but they left when he did. He warned her that he would find her again, and the sword would go back to its rightful owner.

It was Dottore Luigi who brought them to the cathedral that morning. "Bishop Carillo has told me that he has work for us; but he will not put anything in writing. We must see him, if we wish to find out more about it."

So they did. The cathedral, up on the hill overlooking the harbor, was gothic in its design, a throwback to the Castillian middle ages. Its interior was dark and grim—shafts of brilliant colored light shone through the stained glass, incising sharp cuts into pools of shadow. The hymns of the canons gave the place a sacral air.

They were led to the bishop's office, an octagonal room bedecked with signs of scholarship and learning: books all in Old Théan, a sextant, globe, and spyglass, and even an old Crescent astrolabe. "You are not the kind of people who wish to see the Inquisition gain more power. This I know." The bishop's words were Vodacce, but translated to Vendel for the benefit of all gathered by Luigi Vasso. "I know this because you asked after the fate of the captain in the ship you brought here. You were concerned. This touches me.

"I wish to know if you would strike a blow against Cardinal Verdugo and his lackeys." With the others giving a grumbling sort of assent, the bishop went on. "Good. As you may know, the Universidad San Cristobal was closed several months ago. The Inquisition shuttered it and demanded no further research take place. With the Hierophant missing or dead, there is no one who can gainsay Verdugo." The bishop shook his head.

"Amongst those men at the Universidad, there was one by the name of Profesor Alónso. He was a scholar in Syrneth lore and history. He had a site, not far from Salamancar, at which he was digging. There is an old Crescent mosque that was converted to a church after the Reconquista. Beneath it, lies a Syrenth tomb. Well, two weeks ago, Inquisitors arrested his diggers and sent them to work on El Murro, the Black Fortress."

"What do you want us to do? Rescue him from an Inquisition dungeon?" asked Signore Fortunato.

"No," said the bishop. "He is here. Hidden in this very church. My knights have kept him safe. But the ship you brought to harbor—the Wanderer... it has brought enough powder to this city that the Inquisition's loyal man, Padre Javier, has been able to requisition it from the army. He finally has the forces to do what he has wanted to do ever since he put Alónso in his sights."

"Destroy the patrimony of the Syrneth," grumbled the Ussuran. "Something which is, by right, the inheritance of all mankind."

"So you see my problem. I need you to escort Alónso out of Castille to safety... and to humiliate Javier, prevent his powder from destroying the ruin. If he is sufficiently humbled, he will not have the power to requisition such supplies from General Montoya again."

It was decided. They met the Profesor, who told them of his time in the ruins, his discovery of a Syrneth machine designed to look like a human hand, but all of red metal. He showed it to them: fused to the stump of his left arm, where a Syrne trap had scythed his flesh away. And he told them the name of the town: Almiera.

Before they left, the bishop took Brother Iakov aside. "I only now realized who you are, and I must warn you. You have an enemy back home who has whispered poison into every ear he can reach. I, and every bishop in Théah, have received letters warning of a dangerous heretic fleeing from justice. I wanted to tell you that my name can save you from the Inquisition... but only in this city. Outside Salamancar, I have no power."

The next day found them out at Almiera, planning an ambush for the wagon-caravan of powder coming from Salamancar. But before they could set their trap in the hills west of town, a familiar face reappeared. The man who had troubled Beatrix the day before, and his eight thugs, were coming up the trail. They learned his name from the innkeep, or rather his title amongst the Castillians: La Espina Noir, the Blackburr.

As he approached on horseback, Beatrix dismounted. Signore Fortunato shouted a challenge to duel in Vendel, but the man did not reply.

Beatrix drew the Aquilard. "I challenge you," she said coldly.

With a laugh, the big man dismounted and threw aside his hat. He drew his sword and main-gauche. "You will regret it. I will take that sword with me to Montaigne."

"If you do," she sneered, "It will be in your belly."

They saluted one another, as swordsmen do. Then, he lunged. At once she was on the defensive. Theus, he was fast! Fortunato fingered his weapons, and Sven drew his axe. The moment she staggered, they were ready to intervene. The Blackburr's epée drew blood, then sliced the buttons from Beatrix's cuff. He smiled cruelly.

Beatrix dared a few experimental strokes, but the Blackburr beat them away. She withdrew; she waited. She parried a thrust, and then a cut. Then, with a quick one-two, she made her counterthrust: deep into the Blackburr's chest. He grunted, but still he came on. He sliced open her coat and cut along the side of her belly.

In response, she opened another pin-prick in his side. His shirt was now soaked with blood. "Damn," he hissed. "Take her!" 

Brother Iakov, ever ready, hurled his great battle axe at the man. The Blackburr fell into the dust, shrieking and clutching at the huge handle. His men were swiftly dispatched, and he himself given bandages to staunch the flow of blood from the wound. They were all bound and carried out of sight.

When the caravan came around the bend, Brother Iakov and Beatrix were hidden behind a nearer hill, Sven and Fortunato behind a farther. Three wagons came trundling down the road, each driven by a white-coated man of the Castillian army. At the head of the column there rode a Vodacce captain in white with a long cloak of red. Near its rear there rode a woman in white with a musket across her lap. Both wore tricorns frilled with fancy Castillian brass and silver. Marching alongside the caravan were fifteen young noblemen, each in a different shade of fine red garb.

The Fortunate Ones stepped from their hiding places. An axe flew; a musket cracked. Beatrix fired her pistol at the horseman. But none were prepared for Sven—for he drew, with a peace of soft chalk, upon his long-hafted Vesten waraxe, an ancient sign, a rune of the Laerdom. With that gesture, the might of the Old Gods spoke. A stroke of lightning tore through the air, sizzling as it went. It touched a powder keg.

All at once, the three wagons were an inferno of hellish fire. Smoke rolled up like the breath of Legion. There was an almighty thunder, and everyone was thrown clear of the wagons. The drivers died instantly, along with their horses. The men marching on either side were hurled to their feet. The captain and his lieutenant were both blasted from their mounts: both horses were scorched by the fire. The men lining the march were tossed into the brush, and even the Fortunate Ones were left with their ears ringing, their feet slipping from under them, and their sight turning white.

When they came to, they joined the fray. A CRACK! from the woman-lieutenants musket brought Sven low. She dropped it and drew a pistol, slamming a ball into Fortunato's side. The captain hewed a heavy cut at Beatrix, his falchion slicing her coat in twain and biting into her hip. Iakov rushed the him and struck him in the face with the butt off his axe, shattering his nose. As he staggered, spitting blood, Beatrix feinted left, then lunged right, running him through. Fortunato struck the woman in the temple with his hilt.

Before long, the others surrendered. They were gathered together, their breeches sliced to reveal the flesh of their bottoms, and warm pine-tar was poured over them, compounded with bagfuls of feathers.

Beatrix let the Blackburr go after the soldiers departed, walking, in shame to Salamancar. He was deprived of his weapons and his money, and released into the hills. The captain and his lieutenant were sent off to El Murro to report on their failure, be stripped of their rank, and make what little they could of the rest of their lives.

And now, the big Vesten Sven watched. In case someone came riding out of Salamancar looking for the men (and woman) who had bloodied the nose of the Inquisition.

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