The Gates of Netherford

Written By: Stephen Dove - Mar• 10•14

Background

The Cantorbridge Tales finally arrive at Netherford! For those of you just joining us, this is another installment of the first in a series of linked adventures that model a medieval road journey; in this case a pilgrimage. See the earlier parts of this article series by clicking on ‘Vindashire’  in the categories menu in the sidebar. These adventures are statted up for Dragon Warriors, but could easily be ported to d20 based games because the monsters and NPCs are fairly generic and can be lifted straight out of your monster manuals.

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In sight of the City

It is a beautiful evening in late autumn as the PCs arrive at the gates of Netherford. The waning sun kisses the surface of the river as they approach, turning its sinuous course into a ribbon of quicksilver. Later, as the sun sinks into the west, it paints the skeletal branches of nearby trees in a thousand shades of pastel, even as the shadows lengthen.

The smell of burning stubble fills the evening air; clouds of smoke billowing up from the well-tilled fields on either side of the road, as serfs burn off what the harvest has scorned.

Before the PCs  come to the gates, they must pass the rude settlement of Rufford, hidden behind ancient earthworks; the sweet smell of woodsmoke and of hog dung mingling pleasantly in the crisp air. Here, hard eyed men dressed in filthy peasant garb watch them warily from their doorways; their mangy dogs straining at their leashes, barking unfriendly challenges.

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Just beyond Rufford, the stench of the city ditch will assault their senses until it seems as if they can almost taste the putrescent mix of human waste and rubbish that emanates from the steep gouge in the earth that surrounds the town walls. As they approach, Goodwives from the city empty stinking chamber pots into the ditch, narrowly missing the bloated corpse of a dead sheep that floats amidst the detritus littering the surface of the fetid channel.

A bridge crosses over the noisome flow and the lane passes between the two squat towers of the gatehouse that form the Pilgrim’s Gate.  The party must each pay the Fayre toll (2 florins) and will be given a small clay tablet bearing the image of St Martin. Anyone bearing weapons will be required to ‘peacebond’ any sword or other martial weapon, though daggers are allowed to remain free. This knot makes drawing any weapon take 2 full combat rounds. The Watch will also require that any non-Knight remove armour they are wearing with an AF greater than  2. Knights will be directed to present themselves to the Castle Constable, as is custom and courtesy; where they may be given leave to bear their arms and armour in the city, depending upon their allegiance, reputation and conduct.

Once through the gates, the lane comes hard up against a steep hill; the shadow of Netherford Castle high above, looming over those daring to enter the town. Now the PCs must make a choice, as the monks who built Netherford intended. To the left lies St Basil’s lane, the Cathedral, the Abbey grounds and salvation; to the right, Fore Street, the narrow lanes and fleshpots of the town, and probable damnation.

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Explanations and a Trial

If the party arrive in company with any bodies (or if they arrive after Master Carpenter arrives on his cart with any bodies), they will immediately be questioned by the Watch manning the Pilgrim’s gate, who will most likely escort them under guard to St Botoph’s Church; which is on Fore Street, while they fetch ‘the Crowner’. The PCs will be brought food and wine and will be questioned by the Sargent-at-Arms; if they mention any witnesses to the violence who are not present, then some of the Watch will go and try to find them if they are in the City.

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Sir John Talbot, the Crowner or Coroner proves to be a rather rotund Knight with a bushy black beard, wearing a fur-lined cloak and sporting a bejeweled dagger and matching sword. He sweeps into the church about an hour after the PCs arrive, still gnawing on a chicken leg. He has a gaggle of townsfolk and pilgrims in tow; this rowdy company have been rousted out of the taproom of the nearby ‘Pilgrims’ Rest’; a respectable Inn just across the square. Most still bear flagons or the crusts of pies or bread that there were eating before they were interrupted. They are here to act as jury.

Sir John examines each body, still chewing away on his drumstick, whilst he barks comments at his whey-faced clerk, Thomas Blanchard, who hastily scribbles notes down on a slate.

Sir John will then question the PCs closely about the circumstances of any deaths. Medieval Crowners were notorious for levying fines on witnesses for the slightest excuse, and Sir John, being a member of the most rapacious family in Vindashire, is no exception. If the PCs let any of the witnesses to the deaths leave the scene without making them come to Netherford; if the PCs have brought dead lepers within the city bounds, or if the PCs allowed a mob to hang an untried man, he will fine them 10 florins each, for every such transgression. He will also take the possessions of any dead folk as ‘amercements’ and then ask the jury for their verdicts, roaring at them if they ask any stupid questions. Once he has pronounced judgement, his scribe will write the judgement on a roll of parchment and it will be posted on the outside wall of St Boltoph’s near the graveyard, as this is a common place for gatherings and for news to be spread.

If the PCs are suspected of any wrong-doing; i.e. if there have been deaths by violence with no living witnesses to vindicate them, then the PCs could be in for trouble, though if they brought the body or bodies back to Netherford, then this will be looked upon favourably and they will be let off.  If they did not accompany the bodies back, but were detained by the Watch upon entering the City, then they must face a trial to prove their innocence. A roaring brazier of coals will be brought in and one of the PCs made to pluck a red hot poker from the coals without flinching (Evasion versus a Speed of 11). If they ‘evade’, they take 1 HP damage and the party are adjudged innocent. If they fail, they take 1d4 damage and are adjudged guilty.

If the party are found guilty, the Crowner asks the jury and his officers to step outside whilst he ‘further questions the witnesses’. He will then offer to let them off, saying that he ‘believes in their innocence’ but that they will have to pay a fine so that he can ‘smooth things over with the Jury’. This is obviously blatant corruption, but what can you expect from a Talbot! If the PCs can russle up 100 florins, they will be let off; with Sir John recording a favourable verdict. He will, of course, take any of their possessions in lieu of actual money. The NPCs caught up in these deaths may pay some or all of these fines or bribes; Lord Aldred’s Men, Etienne, or Reeve Corbett certainly would contribute, though Lord Aldred’s Men have less money than the latter two. Clever PCs could also trade off Lord Aldred’s influence, or Etienne’s Father to sway the Crowner and either is likely to work if raised convincingly.

Burials

Once a verdict has been reached, any bodies must be buried and masses for their souls said.  The GM should make it clear that without a sponsor, some of these poor souls will end up buried in a mass grave outside the town; any NPCs still with the PCs (which will be anyone who is cursed or who stood accused) will make this perfectly clear. Teresa or Etienne in particular would not hear of this, and would try to get the others to help get these poor folk buried in hallowed ground.

Netherford has so many churches (see map below) because each is frequented by different sorts of folk; for townspeople of different station like to mingle with their own, even in the sight of God and in death. The Churches of Netherford are:

1) St Simeon’s is sited on a low hill overlooking the lake known as the Nethermere. It is frequented only by the High-born, the Noble or the very rich. It’s priest, Father Roderic, is a skilled orator and theologian who looks down his nose at the poor and hates any lack of cleanliness. He is always looking for donations, dresses richly and secretly uses whores. St Simeon’s is a very rich church, full of costly tapestries spun from golden and silver thread, beautiful statues, ornate carvings and stained glass windows.

2) St Boltoph’s is used mainly by many Guildsmen and lesser merchants. It is also greatly favoured by pilgrims. The Church-yard is well known as a meeting place and messages are often stuck to the sides of the church, including court judgements, offers of work and proclamations from the Guilds or Alderman. The inside of the Church is painted with frescoes, and depicts the Life of St Boltoph, who was once a shepherd and is the patron saint of Travellers and Pilgrims. It is also often used as an impromptu court by the local Crowner; St John Talbot. Its priest is Father Bartholomew, a very young and pious man who is said to see visions and to be gifted with stigmata; wounds that bleed in memory of the Holy Fischer Gatanades.

3) St Stephen’s is a faded building, the stones rotting away and the graveyard forlorn. The inside is dark and hung with captured war banners and broken blades. It is favoured by soldiers from the Castle and members of the Watch, whose homes surround the Church, and by butchers, tanners and Dyers; and so is the preserve of those who are avoided and reviled in medieval society. Its priest, Father Thomas Mountford, was once a noble crusader Knight, who foreswore violence because of the sins he committed in the holy land. In truth his faith hangs by a thread, but he is actually closer to God than most men, though he often spends his nights weeping as he dreams of all the things he had seen and done.

4) St Lot’s is a beautiful church; the outside of which is covered in ceramic figures of Devils, Saints and Fey. Even the tombstones are more ornately carved than is normal in Netherford. It is the preserve of the Potters, Tilers, Brickmakers, Weavers and Masons who live in the Pottersbridge area of the City. These are some of the most powerful guilds in Netherford, and so the church is fairly rich in style. It’s priest is Father Tyler, who was once a Guildsman himself, before he gave up all his money when his wife and children died of the pestilence many years ago. He is a morose and rather sad figure whose sermons are full of portents of doom.

5) St Job’s is a tiny chapel that is frequented by the Fishermen who call Netherford home. It is very poorly appointed, lit by fish-oil lamps and simply whitewashed inside. Father Bedr is a Cornumbrian, and is famed for championing the poor of Netherford, even translating holy books into Elleslandic. He has been investigated for heresy many times, but all those who meet him are impressed by his humble piety, even though he is often at odds with the Church authorities.

6) St Dunstan’s is Netherford Castle’s chapel and is the private preserve of the Lord High Sheriff, the Constable and their families and retinues. It contains many ornate tombs of past Sheriffs and Crusading Knights, and has the feel of a rich family’s chapel.

7) St Mark’s Friary is the home of a group of men who have sworn to live lives of poverty but pass their days doing good works amongst the sick and needy instead of locking themselves away from the world, like monks do. This is not a place of public worship, but is instead a place of healing and all the Brothers are skilled herbalists and surgeons. They also buy animal skins from the shambles and make vellum from it, which they sell to the Abbey copyists and buy food and medicine for the poor with the monies they obtain. The Friary also has one of Ellesland’s only public libraries; though the books cannot be borrow, only read in their reading room. As few can read in these days, the library is often empty, but it does contain books on most mundane topics.

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Anyone slain in any of the encounters so far are of such a low station as to be eligible for burial at either St Stephen’s or St Job’s Churches. If any of the corpses show any sign of having been slain violently, the priest at St Job’s (or indeed any of the other churches in the town) will refuse to have the corpse; directing the party to St Stephens, for medieval folk fear that corpses might ‘lie unquietly’ if they died violently.

Burial and the associated masses will cost 5 florins  per person at St Job’s; a poor chapel near the fishmarket, where the fisherfolk say their prayers, or 15 florins at St Stephen’s. The latter building is a much larger church and is flanked by the houses of the Town Watch and those soldiers who man the castle. It is surrounded by a yew hedge; said to keep the dead in their graves, for not a few of those in this church-yard came to their end in violent circumstances, and this is a thing of dread to the medieval mind. Yet the Priest of St Stephens  is well used to such things as a former Knight, and will not quail if the party have the coin, assuring them ‘that this poor soul shall find in death the peace that eluded him in his last moments on earth!’

Master Carpenter will pay for Gervases’ funeral, if required, but anyone else will be down to the PCs.

Award any PC who contributes money to the burial of these poor souls one pointy of Piety; as shall be shown in later installments, true Piety is required to remove the Fey curse and free the PCs from the evil magic that currently entraps them, and it is through their deeds that they shall be judged. Note that during the burial, the PCs’ shadows return as long as they walk on hallowed ground; but Sorcerors will feel distinctly uncomfortable and can only cast first rank spells within the precincts of the churches or Cathedrals.

The Curse

Now that the PCs are in Netherford, they will probably want to research their curse. They might ask at any of the Churches or at the Cathedral or Abbey; or they could even search in the library of St Mark’s Friary. If they do so, they are likely to track down a story in the Life of St Felix; an Algandian Saint who spent his life learning about and disputing with the ancients Fey Lords who once held sway in the deep forests that still cover his homeland (for more details, see The Order of St Felix here). The story is called ‘The Conversion of St Phillipe’  and is as follows;

And in the tenth year after his conversion, did Felix cross into the valley of Navard where he came upon a shepherd who wore robes so costly that they might have adorned a King, and yet the poor man was wretched with weeping.

‘How now Good Shepherd; what ails you my friend?’ asked Felix, whereupon the shepherd, whose name was Phillipe, told him of a coin hoard he had found in the forest. The gold bore the device and image of no known human King and yet had the Phillipe rejoiced and had taken up the gold and had run home with it, heedless of the danger.

Phillipe now bemoaned his fate, since his Wife had left him, just a month after he found the Gold; running off with a travelling minstrel, and taking much of the remaining gold with her. Then he had quarrelled with his Father, who had wanted some of Phillipe’s bounty for himself, yet Phillipe could not bring himself to part with a single coin. Even his friends had deserted him, jealous of his fortune. Finally, wolves had come down from the mountains and had eaten his flock, but left those of his neighbours untouched.

‘O woe is me!’ said the Shepherd bitterly ‘for I am accursed and so unloved by God and fortune’

‘Do not fear Brother! For you are indeed accursed. For Lo; see you cast no shadow in the Noon-day sun. Doth you not know what this portends? God has not abandoned you; but a veil has been drawn twixt you and the Most High, for you have become subject to Fey Law and have entered into eldritch compact with them, by accepting their gift!’

‘But they gave me no gift; yet you must mean the Gold. Have I been tricked then?’

You have Brother; and in so taking this gold have you cut yourself off from God and subjected yourself to the power of these evil creatures.

‘What then must I do?’ wept Phillipe, falling to his knees.

You must serve God! Not for nothing has this happened to you; it is a part of God’s plan, for by being enmeshed in the power of these creatures, have they also lent you a measure of their power which can be turned against them. You can now see through their glamours and so could aid me in defeating them. Only by using your power for God’s purposes can you ever be free of it. Come with me; I have devoted my life to helping men like you from these ancient banes. Join me and know peace; else you must find each and every coin you were given and somehow win them back from those who hands now grasp them. Only then could you replace them where you found them and only then will the curse be broken, after a year and a day. But if you come with me, God will break your curse when he finds you worthy. But first your heart must be pure.

Many years did Phillipe travel with Felix and learnt from him many things that were both wise and Good. And ever could he see the true form of the Fey and could direct Felix, whose lore was deep and whose faith was so great that even the Mistlords shrank from him.

And in the end, was the curse broken; when Phillipe’s heart was pure and when he had fulfilled God’s purpose. By then, so filled with Grace was he that he founded his own house of God and went about as Felix had done, and taught and healed those afflicted by curses and in time became St Phillipe of Navard and was exalted by all men who love the Word of God!

It should be obvious that the story is hinting that piety can break the curse; and that the curse allows those so ensnared to wield power over Fey. This theme will be explored in the next post; a mini-adventure set in Netherford, involving a Gloaming hidden in a tapestry and a child who is not what he seems…….

 

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