You are all currently in the employ of Auguste, the eleventh Earl of Halebridge.
The Earldom is quite large, with a good portion of the land the Earl rules given over to farming and grazing. It is this, along with the poverty that blights the realm, that has gained the Earldom the reputation as something of an undesirable backwater.
The main city is Halebridge itself, although it's really a city in name only. In other provinces Halebridge would be considered a large town at best. The city sits across the river Hale, hence the name, and it is here that the majority of the non-Humans in the Earldom reside. Most of the Earldom's population is Human, although there are several sizeable Halfling settlements and one notorious Gnome village, but in Halebridge you can easily find an Elf mage or Dwarf blacksmith or even the occasional Half-Orc mercenary.
It is from Halebridge that the Earl rules. The Earl, although not a particularly old man, is of frail health, having never quite recovered from severe wounds he sustained on the field of battle many years ago. Most people suspect is it only a matter of time before he passes away and then the province will fall to one of the Earl’s twin sons. Neither of the brothers (both in their mid-twenties) are highly regarded by the populace. Sébastian is a devout worshipper of the god Torag – too devout, even the kindest of people say. The unkind consider him a pious prig who values chastity and self-penance over anything else – while Henri, known commonly as Hal, is a drunkard oaf and will happily admit it, preferring carousing and womanizing rather than ruling.
As their mother died in childbirth and the attending midwife disappeared mysteriously thereafter, no one is sure which son is the elder, and so the day the Earl dies is feared as the uncertainty of succession will no doubt lead to bloodshed. Both of the earl’s sons should be fighting in the war against the Orcs far to the north but both instead remain firmly ensconced in Halebridge, neither daring to leave. For if their father dies when one of them is away, the other will lay claim to the title.
There is a younger daughter too, Isolde the Bastard, but she attends court only at the insistence of the Earl. When Auguste finally does die, her fate will undoubtedly be decided by whichever son becomes the new Earl. If she's lucky, Sébastian will hide her way in a nunnery. Desna only knows what Henri would do with her.
Earl Auguste rarely leaves his castle. Most of the day-to-day governing of the Earldom is carried out by his mother-in-law, the lady Gudrun, who is roughly the same age as the Earl. Her daughter was in her teens when she married the Earl and only a few years older when she died. Gudrun governs well, possessing a keen mind and a sharp tongue. Cross her at your peril.
Undesirable backwater it may be, but there is money to be made in Halebridge for adventurers who are willing to take a chance and brave the unknown. And there is plenty that is unknown. What little land in Halebridge is not given over to farming is mostly woodland, and they say that the forests of Halebridge are some of the most dark and unsettling places in the known world. Rumours abound of many evils and it’s often not considered safe to travel too far from home. Sometimes, you only need step off a road to find yourself in mortal danger. The more pragmatic ascribe such dangers to mere bandits, soldiers and countryfolk driven to banditry by poverty, disease and starvation, but many speak of fearsome beasts and whole hidden settlements of creatures.
And the war in the north means the supply of warriors in the province has dwindled, allowing these bandits and creatures free reign. The Earl's small force of knights do their best to keep law and order but they can't be everywhere. Worse, most of the knights have already adopted sides, some opting to ally themselves with Sébastian, others with Henri.
Finally, and perhaps much worse, plague is ravaging the countryside. So far it has not reached the town but many of the small villages have been badly affected, and prayers to Sarenrae (the Goddess of Healing) seem to do little or nothing.
So why have you been hired? Well, a few weeks ago the Earl sent a considerable dowry to a neighbouring province, ruled over by another noble family, having agreed that his illegitimate daughter would marry their eldest son. Unfortunately, the small band of knights sent to protect the engagement gift never arrived. At some point during their journey they were ambushed and the dowry stolen.
The loss of valuable soldiers was a setback, the loss of the dowry even more so, and the fact that the arranged marriage fell through considered a disaster. However, worse news was that amongst the gold that made up the bulk of the dowry was a silver diadem, known as the Crown of Tears. This crown was meant to be worn by Isolde at her wedding and was emblazoned with three droplet-shaped diamonds.
Said to be magical, the Crown of Tears could normally be easily detected through the use of scrying spells but when news of the ambush came to Halebridge it proved to be too late. Even the best Clerics attending the Earl's court could not locate the crown, try as they might, not through magical means. And the Earl no longer has the soldiers at his disposal to scour the countryside.
Hiring you has been a last resort. Each of you has been promised a considerable purse of monies if you can return the crown (and hopefully the dowry too). Working as a group, you have finally tracked the ambushers deep into the darkest forests...