The guards looked up as a young man approached the fortress gate house. The man was a merchant by his atttire, though he had gone to the expense of a fine quality zig-zag striped blue and white cloak to make him appear more like a noble, even the guards could tell he was no knight. Though he might be a city official of some kind, as the cloak was in the city colours. The burning torches he passed as he approached did not illuminate the mans face well enough for the guards. They stepped forward onto the stone bridge and yelled "Identify yourself in the name of Duke Louis IV" at the approching man.
The man raised his arms in defense and walked forward slowly, "Good evening, gentlemen. It is me Franklin."
The guards relaxed, "Step forward and be identified." they said
The man did as he was asked, and in spite of the hour being long after midnight he asked "Why so edgy, has something happened?"
The first guard shrugged, "The Duke is in residence, and has several visiting dignitaries with him. Your fellow society members are meeting in the knights hall. Most have retired for the eveing I think, though there are likely some still there, those things seem to go on untill dawn."
The man smiled "Ahh, I see. I hope we are not too much trouble for you"
The second guard piped up then for the first time "No, not at all sir. Please enjoy your evening"
Franklin answered with a broad smile "Oh, I certainly will tonight. I have some very amusing news to relay. Good evening gentlemen"
The guards chorused "Evening sir", and Franklin strode into the Fortress.
As he walked through the grand courtyard of the ageing bavarian fortress, he could not help but notice the old knights stables. Now used primarily for the Duke's personal steeds, and as a place for guests to dismount as they entered. He though back to when he was young, a little over a century ago this courtyard was a hive of activity. Knights, stablehands, the castle's own blacksmith hammering at some metal thing in the corner. Soldier's dashing in and out of the keep. So many wars, so much change.
The knights hall was actually a bustle with activity, though the Duke and his servants had long since departed, his semi-secret gentleman's club the guard referred to as his 'society' were still gathered. More than usual for a tuesday, he thought to himself. He headed for the central group, the elders of the city were gathered with some kindred he did not recognise. Including a stern man with loose black hair and what seemed to be a permanent sneer. As he approached the group the seneshal indicated to his approach and the group stopped talking. Franklin silently cursed himself, had he approached quietly from just a slightly different angle he would have been able to listen in on their conversation for just a little longer. The elders are clearly entertaining someone important, perhaps even Lord Jurgen, the Kindred Prince of Hungary. The rumour mill is rife with gossip from that region, if he can find out more he may make a tidy profit tonight. Duty first however.
"My lords" Franklin began, bowing low to the assembled group "I bear news from Lientz", adding for the benefit of the hungarian party "It is a small town south of Salzburg, adjacent to our Duke's holdings in Tyrol."
The Seneshal interupted "My lords, this is Franlkin, one of our Harpies. I am sure this is of little importance, if you excuse me I will deal with the matter privately."
Franklin cursed the bitch privately, it looks like gossip from Hungary was not going to be his. She probably already had buyers lined up for the information, likely the sewer rats would have some truly juicy secrets they would be willing to exchange if the news was recent enough. But he knew his place "Yes milady" he said, he bowed and started to back away. Then an impecably dressed man in black and green velvet with gold inlay spoke up "My lord, we have had little to amuse us in this dour place. Perhaps a little local gossip would lighten the mood."
Franklin paused, suddenly hopeful for his audience. The stern faced man, looked bored. "very well" he said absently, "continue".
This was it then, Franklin actually only news of minor interest, but he knew this group wanted entertainment and the news he had was .. well it was funny.
As he started to speak, several other kindred in the room stopped to listen. Franklin had his stage, and he hoped the local rivalries would amuse the assembly. Especially as the tale was light hearted. "Greetings my fellows, my name is Franklin and I bear a tale for your amusement this night." The crowd pricked up their ears, some of them literally. The usual hecklers and the other harpies started the friendly jibes "No Hershal, the pestilence has not gone, Gehenna is still upon us I'm afraid. But we are all still here, we may be starving, but we have not met final death yet. This tale comes to me from Salzburg, from whence I have recently returned. And it is all the rage in the court there. Here in Munich however, you heard it from me first. What I have to say concerns Prince Darius of Lientz"
Some of the crowd booed, and some laughed with excitement, Darius was a regular target of the ire of the Bavarian kindred. One of the few passes South available to the kindred in winter was the Salzburg - Lientz road. And the toll was steap. Luckily the elders who ruled at each end hated each other with a fury which had become somewhat of a joke. They were always undermining each other and using guile and misdirection to force the other's city to make silly laws, and other petty effects. Both were hardened soldiers, veterans of the the crusades in the holy land, the conquest of Hungary, and of course the wars of their own bitter rivalry. The comedic aspect had began after they both returned from the sharing a castle somewhere in the heart of Transilvania, on the front lines of the Hungarian campaign. Count Englebert III of Gorizia invited the Prince-bishop Eberhard II of Salzburg to bless the site of construction for his new castle on the plains to the north east of Lientz. At this meeting both of the elder kindred enacted a petty plan against the other simultaneously. The prince-bishop from salzburg was subtelly and permenantly convinced that he should agree to untolled and free passage to all pilgrims travelling into salzburg from the South. Thus allowing Lientz to charge a higher toll. The wording in the by-laws however made the law permenant and Salzburg even now is stuck with it. Meanwhile, as construction of the new castle had been costly the Kindred Prince of Salzburg had arranged for the plains where the castle was being built to be magically transformed into bog. Though accounts vary as exactly how it was achieved, the more common explanation is sorcery, while the more practical is a clever architectural alteration to the shape of the mountains behind the castle which make the area a flood plain in the spring. Darius retaliated several decades later by using his by then significant control of Prince-bishop Eberhard II and making him publically denounce the pope as the anti-christ on a routine visit to Regesburg Cathederal. The resulting war allowed him to gain control over the Duchies of Styria, Carinthia and the marches of Carniola. Darius did not attack the Kindred elder of Salzburg, perfering that he remain in office to deal with the enemies that elder had accidentally made in Rome while failing to clean up the mess his Prince-bishop had caused. A century had passed since these tales, each event more amusing than the last. At least to outsiders.
Franklin waited for the crowd to give him its full attention before he continued. "Imagine the scene. All of the court gather's, much like we are tonight. The prince has spent years forcing all of his subjects to be frugal. They have still not lowered thier travel blockade, and are locked behind thier mountain passes hiding from the pestilence. The entire city is on rations, mortal and kindred alike. The Count there is still Albert II, the Prince ghouled him a few decades ago. As we all know ghoul's can not be mind controlled, and remain fanatically loyal to their domitor's even against the most severe torture. Unless of course the Domitor is weak willed, or very young."
"Well, in walks the ghoul Count Albert II of Gorizia, proud as muck. He waits patiently for an audience, for his master to bid him to speak. And when he does, he asks permission to construct a stone wall. A defence against the pestilence, and a solid encassement around the town against visitors. Darius refuses of course. He explains that the stone required would be more than can be quarried, and that the masons required would need to be brought in from outside, Itally where the pestillence is rife or here in Munich. The Count leaves of course, in agreement they tell me."
"The next morning, as the kindred sleep the Count gets up and issues a decree to construct, not a stone wall as he was directly commanded not to, but a wooden wall. A vast one to span the width of the Southern valley. Further, he adds to the decree that it must be completed within 10 years and that nobody, not his brothers, nor himself can recind the order. His Chancellor and Castellan are likely puzzled by that but the get to work anyway."
"That night the Prince is furious, he forgets decorum when the Count enters the kindred court and just starts shouting at him. The Count takes it all, as you'd expect. He is still a ghoul after all. But the next day, the order is still in place. The workers start digging holes for the first posts of the wooden wall. night after night the Prince orders the construction to stop. But Day after day, the wall gets bigger and bigger."
"The plans are apparently to build a simple palisade first, then the more Darius complins. The more ambitious the design becomes. It is not planned to be a stone wall, but it is expected to have a solid stone and earth base. A guards walkway, several watch towers. And there are now plans for a wall on the Northern pass too."
Franklin, pauses and bows as the crowd applauds quietly. "Thank you friends, if I hear more I will be sure to bring it to you." He turns to face the cities elder kindred, the Seneshal shakes her head indicating that the tale was nothing special.
The black clad stranger however remains clapping louder than anyone else had been and is beaming. "Lord Hardestadt, that was fantastic do you not think?" he says, "And well told too, I must say. Thank you Franklin."
"Well it certainly passed the time". Came the reply from the stoic Lord, clearly uninterested.
Internally Franklin was fighting the urge to thump himself, this was not Lord Jurgen the eldest kindred of an entire country, but the kindred Lord Jurgen was vassel to. The defacto and eternal ruler of the entire Holy Roman Empire, the truly ancient and immesurably powerful Hardestadt. If he can gain an audience with any of his entourage, there is all manner of gossip he may be able to learn. In fact the mere tale of him telling a tale for Hardestadt is enough. Hell even just knowing he was here in Munich for the summer is valuable. And here he was talking to him .. well sort of, at least when he retells this story he will be talking to Hardestadt.
"Well I for one was hooked, I want to know more in fact. So much more." The black clad courtier continued. "Come Franklin, tell me how you came by this tale. how for example did this story leave a city, which you said was in lockdown. Physically preventing all trade, and all passage through the mountains. How did such a tale make its way, through the mountain passes. Did harpies from Lientz, swap places with harpies from Salzburg for a night? Are they shouting at each other from the mountain tops, ignoring the werewolf infested, forest covered road? Have you ever seen what a werewolf does to our kind? I would expect travelling kindred who invade their tarritory to be a little more cautious.."
Franklin hung his head in shame, as the courtier continued to find holes in the logic of the story. He stopped listening and just prayed for the group to open up and swallow him.
"Leave the poor childe alone Infurious, look at him he is so cute." The voice belonged to a beautiful dark haired woman. As Franklin looked up he could swear she licked her lips, she was definately staring at him like he was food. It made him uneasy. Franklin was just about to tell them that he was no childe, he left is mortal life behind over a century ago. but, glancing around at the handful of courtiers he did not recognise, he realised they all had the same look in their eyes. Something he was told years ago suddenly came to mind, though he had always dismissed it as legend. But that horror story applied only to the truly ancient... come to think of it Hardestadt, he was supposed to be older than the Old Roman Empire, and that would make him ancient alright. These courtiers who travel with him, how old are they? If they are his council, well then they are probably not going to be young, he wouldn't listen to them unless they were at least elders. 'At least' that was worrying. Suddenly Franklin felt very uneasy about this situation. He was relieved when they finally finished embarassing him and allowed him to join the rest of the rank and file of the court of Munich.
Later that night the travelling court of Hardestadt sat alone in a study, somewhere inside the fortress. The local kindred had departed and dawn threatened the sky outside. They had been discussing their visit quietly for some time. "That little harpy, Franklin was cute. I thought we might take him with us when we leave." The dark haired beauty said absently.
"We are staying through the summer my dear. I am sure you will be bored of him before then." one of the other courtiers teased
"Eying him for yourself Raphael?" She retorted
"That story he told was interesting" Infurious said
"How so? we heard the same tale in Augsburg just last month. Or have you forgotten" Raphael said with a wry smile
The dark haired woman laughed, though the laugh ended with more of a snear.
"We heard nearly the same tale in Augsburg, yes. And we heard another tale recounting a different blunder by this Darius fellow in Vienna last summer. Unlike these local harpies we know that Salzburg is under close scrutiny and would not dare make a move. Boukephos would not allow his island in our Empire to be lost, and he if he was planning something, which we know he is, he would not make his move while this Pestilence has us all starved. No this is something else." Infurious said to Hardestadt, ignoring his other companions
"Maybe the Italians are not affected by the Pestilence", Raphael interjected
"No", a dark shape from the corner murmered from under its cowl, "They suffer it just as we do"
"Oh, come on Trajan" The dark hair woman said in an annoyed tone "You told us this whole thing started in Sicily, and travelled up to us. Then you said only last month that the Pestilence has stopped affecting Sicily. I think the kindred of Rome will be readying to attack us all from within, I've been saying for years that Salzburg has to be dealt with. We should send someone now before it is too late."
"I say 'what is' Kristina. It is for you to say why that is. And is for our King to decide what we do about it." The cowl murmured
"And I can make no decision on what I've heard tonight. I we will not be sending anyone while this pestilence covers the land. Least of all to the one place within our Empire we could go if things take a turn for the worse. No, lets leave that little mountain community alone. The pestilence appears to be clearing up, when we are clear of it ourselves and the roads to lientz re-opens then I will send a Herald to shake up this provicial governor, Darius.", Hardestadt indicates the matter is closed
"Actually I rather fancy exploring the mountains, I might make a few arrangements and join this herald of yours on his journey." Infurious says
"Well don't go exploring just yet, Fanchon and Adana are both due here next month. What with Jurgen losing the war I expect Fanchon is going to ask us to make room somewhere for her entire clan. I want them close, but not too close. Perhaps Innsbruck or Carniola."
"I doubt they'd want to move from one front line battlefield to another, what about here?"
"Munich? No, this is the base of the spine of all trade up and down the Empire. And before you say it Nurnburg and Bremen are out too."
"What about somewhere more to the side, Utrecht, Magdeburg, Arles or Vienna perhaps?"
"We'll see" Hardestadt said finally
"Why is Adana de Sforza coming? I know she hates madam Fanchon, but she has done enough scouting in Transilvania to know we need them" Infurious asked curious
"Yes, I noticed you didn't mention Prague in your list. No, its just a precaution. She has a turncoat of sorts, a gangrel called Milov apparently seeks allies in his war against the Voivoides. If he represents a sizable faction I'd happily have his clan fighting with us rather than against us."
"You are starting to sound like Jurgen. You know my feelings on the matter, we've fought them to a standstill for nearly 200 years. Why not just surrender."
"And if we surrender, what then? They'd soon be invading us, first it'd be Hungary and Moravia, then Bohemia and Poland and Austria. Then Boukephos will unleash his shadows all over France and we will be crushed from both sides."
"mon deiu!" Raphael, who had been quietly listening suddenly felt the loss of his beloved France required some mention.
"You could always appologise to Brunhilde, or seek an alliance with England", Infurious continued
"Lord Mithras, is considering our offer. He will agree to some terms, but only if they serve him as well as they do us." Raphael reported
"I see we will have a lot to discuss tomorrow night, dawn is close now. I am retiring, lest you all keep me arguing till the sun burns my flesh from my bones"