Crimson and Lace

The trickle of crimson that streaked the clean white lace of the Queen’s dress splashed onto the green grass. A haze of smoke hung over the expanse of the private gardens like a frozen breath of anticipation. A flurry of birds scattered as the echo of the shots reverberated. The silence seemed to cling to the percussive clamour like a lover holding on too long to a departing sweetheart.

The Queen’s breast shuddered, the movement releasing a clucking gurgle in her throat. The crimson showed bright against the lace like the flowering spray of fireworks in the night. Somewhere across the lawns varied shouts rang out, as the shot had done moments ago. Cries of alarm, calls for assistance.

Amidst the trees, assailants hovered like hunters awaiting confirmation of the kill. Shadows hanging in the periphery paused in the act of seeking certainty. Each fixed eyes upon the motionless form lain as an angel upon the lawn. The Queen fell with arms wide as if seeking to embrace her fate, claim the metallic sting of death foist upon her. She didn’t move, not even a breath.

“Call the guard! The Queen lies dying. Raise the alarm!”

Feet pounded across the pristine lawns, leather soles bounding across the turf. The cries of alarm carried through the palace beyond the gardens like ripples.

Imagine the scene as a bird flying high overhead. Movement on the edge of the garden, like ants, edging inward, panicked. Dark spots linger amongst the hedges and trees, a dozen or more. At the centre, a fleck of white. Closer, an angel wreathed in lace, silk and blood. Closer still, lifeless eyes staring blankly at the heavens, a painted face framed by fiery hair. Yet closer, pools of darkness, pupils fixed and unresponsive. A life lost, a soul claimed?

John woke with a start. He sat bolt upright in sheets sodden with sweat. The dormitory resolved through sleep thick eyes. He looked around him, unable to shake the final image – eyes fixed on his, a gaze locked in the moment of death. He could smell blood, the iron tang in his nostrils as he fought for breath, chest heaving.

John tried to calm himself, desperate not to wake the other boys sleeping in the simple cot beds around him. A weak glimmer of moonlight illuminated their restless forms. He pressed his palm against his chest, feeling the urgent thud of his pounding heart. He closed his eyes and sought to find some solace in the darkness, tried to find calm but found only that image of death burnt upon his eyelids.

Had he witnessed the assassination of a queen?

Yet, which and where? And, for that matter, when.

He felt the place familiar but did not recognise the face. The hair, that brilliant spray of red? Could that be a Tudor queen, while Henry yet resided upon the English throne. Might that be young Elizabeth, not yet 6 years old? Yet, how could it be? How could he have seen the death of someone not yet old enough to have weathered the misfortune of a broken mirror?

And what might he do about it? Did he not struggle enough already in classes as his teachers spouted rote and rubbish like actors prancing on a stage. No, he must hold this foreknowledge, if that it were, close to his chest and bide his time. One day, he felt certain, the revelations communed within his dreams would bear fruit and furnish him with just reward. He would ascend as confident and trusted advisor to the great and the good – and thence onward to the heavens.

Now breathing evenly, John rested back upon the thin mattress, strange clumps of straw and feather lumpen against his skinny frame. He looked up into the darkened rafters and pondered for a moment on the worlds beyond that he hoped, one day, might open up before his slightest gesture. He felt certain, despite the anxiety and stress raised by the nightmarish vision, that these images of death heralded something greater. One day, he would know the hallowed halls of royalty and they would bear forth his name upon their lips with high regard.

“John Dee.”

This is not a finished bit of work. I have neither re-read, re-drafted or otherwise polished this effort. Herein lies the genesis of my effort to write more by engaging in the challenge of writing 750 words or more a day. In this instance, with the story not quite enough to achieve this end, this explanation serves to take be beyond the mark.

Wither Moravia?

I have been spending a fair amount of time reading, with the intent that some background will fuel creativity in adventures and setting. Here I speak specifically about The Dee Sanction.

At heart, the setting revolves around the travels of Doctor Dee and Edward Kelley in Eastern Europe. The good Doctor spent a lot of time out in the darkest depths of the Habsburg dominions, perhaps seeking support for Queen Elizabeth in the face of increasing Catholic pressures and feints, perhaps not. It seems that Dee and Kelley spent as much time getting in trouble as anything else.

In a time when witchcraft remained a serious issue with serious repercussions for the practitioners, Dee and Kelley trod a very dangerous path. Kelley, frankly, seems to have been a bit of a fruitcake, and Dee altogether too readily fell for his line. Dee, a man in whom Elizabeth had a great deal of trust, himself trusted in the esoteric prevarications and augurous protestations of a medium and sometime necromancer.

In The Dee Sanction, the player characters make up a team of investigators under the tutelage and mentorship of Dee. Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster, has a keen eye in matters of intelligence and espionage. However, even he cannot claim any great knowledge of matters supernatural. The only way to truly protect Elizabeth necessitates fighting fire with fire.

In spite of the laws of the realm laid down to punish users of magic – like the 1542 Act Against Conjurations and Witchcraft – Walsingham cannot promise true safety without magic of the light. Walsingham advises an adjustment to the legislation, the Dee Sanction, which allows the formation of an undercover unit tasked with seeking out witches, warlocks and demonologists intent on harming the Queen or his dominions.

The setting supports adventures in England, during the 1570s, and thence to Eastern Europe, in the 1580s. Originally, I had my eye on Bohemia and the city of Prague, but this now seems a little too close to the bright lights and riches of nobility. I have come to favour something a little off the ‘beaten track’ and set my Dragonmeet playtest adventure in northern Moravia, which lies to the east of Bohemia.

Now, I’m doing a little preparatory work for Seven Hills in April (just a little) and find my new adventure also set in Moravia, this time in the dark forest and ruined fortresses of eastern Moravia, on the border with Silesia.

In the summer of 1586, a body lies motionless in the grounds of St James’s Park. Servants and courtiers charge across the well tended grounds, the crack of gunfire still echoing in their ears. A crimson outline spreads from the torn and shattered body of Queen Elizabeth, and with the ragged gasp of her final breath the future of England dies with her.

Three years earlier, in the troubled east European border town of Kraznow, a young girl wracked with spasms and tortured by spirits tells of the bloody fall of England’s greatest Queen. Might her words, and the actions of the Dee Sanction, uncover a way to thwart this assassination before it even happens?

I’m personally very keen on this continued stretch in my understanding and appreciation of Europe during this period. I have, in the past, focussed heavily on socio-economic studies of Tudor England, so this goes some way out of my normal territory for reading. I’m always up for a challenge – and, I feel, setting the game in this area allows more leeway for game referees who might themselves have little grasp of the period. Distant corners of Europe, filled with dark forests and trackless mountains, might seem more ‘homely’ to those used to running more conventional fantasy games – and perhaps make the setting more accessible.