The PC’s find themselves in the middle of a dawn or twilight Viking-style raid (whether forewarned of the possibility or not left to the GM). The raiders have fast, maneuverable craft that can strike a village for plunder and then quickly retreat to sea, before a defense can be organized or brought in from elsewhere. The raiders rely on surprise, freely strike at the disorganized or fleeing villagers, grab what they can, burn a few houses and depart. They don’t seem intent on slaughter, nor do they know about village treasure: If anything, they seem to prefer food and clothing, armor and weapons, though they would take anything of value that they happened across. This is a new form of attack in this area, so the villages have not yet adapted to a such a rapid loot-and-run tactic.
The raiders should be the equal of the PC’s, so it’s not a rout on either side - some wounds and even a stray death, but this should only be a quick skirmish, not a battle to the death. The craft are protected from any obvious “normal” magicks or big weapons: fireballs, etc. But the marauders are easily driven away: They have no interest in fighting against equal foes, and will flee at any decent resistance. Clever PC’s will realize this, even if the villagers do not.
The village will beg the PC’s to go to the local stronghold for help. The villagers will be afraid to go by boat, will have minimal land transportation, and are obviously stretched very thin by repairs and loss of material. Besides, they explain, the raiders have come three times now, but about a fortnight apart - so the village is probably safe for a little while.
The village lies near the border of two nominally friendly states (e.g., duchies with a common liege), with a presumed interest in mutual defense. The village belongs to Agnar, who’s nearest stronghold is known to be undermanned and many days away. The real power of Agnar is much further than that. A major castle/coastal port of neighboring Zellin is much closer and faster to reach. Presumably, the PC’s will head to Zellin; if they decide to go to Agnar, they should be berated for their foolishness in not going to Zellin in the firstplace.
As the PC’s travel in either direction, they will hear of similar raids, but none within a day or so of Zellin’s castle.
On arrival at Zellin, they will be greeted somewhat coolly by local officials. Though they will be granted an audience at the castle, their story will be disputed, along with several whispered conversations and shifty glances. There should be just enough grudging acceptance so that the PC’s believe that they are making their case and help will be forthcoming. Manners and conversation should be coarser than the PC’s would expect, just barely civil, so that the PC’s feel uncomfortable and suspicous themselves. After an indifferent dinner and vague promises to “return to the matter in the morning”, the PC’s will be given rooms for the night.
Something will alert the PC’s to movement in the wee hours of the morning. A group of the Zellin authorities that “entertained” them at dinner will be furtively leaving the castle and heading further along the coast. They will proceed an hour or so away to a concealed entrance into a rockface overlooking the sea, leaving a couple of guards at the entrance. Inside, a partially concealed stair (plenty of hiding places) leads down into a grotto (sea cave), within which lies a pirate ship very similar (but not identical) to the one the PC’s encountered at the village.
The Zellin authorities are having an animated conversation with the crew. Within minutes, it becomes apparent that the ship is rapidly being made ready to set sail. (This little outing can repeat once, with the Zellin stringing the PC’s along by day, etc. if the PC’s don’t follow on the first opportunity.)
What’s the full story?
The Zellin are not raiders, but they are moderately xenophobic and paranoid about sensitive political issues. They lack credibility at Court compared to Agnar and others, which makes them vulnerable to irrational suspicions: They naturally regard the PC’s as proxies of Agnar, given their presence at the Agnarian village.
The Zellin want to get rid of the raiders, but they definitely do not want to share any credit for doing so. If they can resolve thes raids alone, then they can lay claim to Agnar’s fishing villages as true protectors, and grow their little empire and influence: Such are the ways of real-politick.
The Zellin captured this raider ship recently, and have been preparing to send it out as a decoy or ruse to get close enough to strike at the raiders. Unfortunately, manning such a boat is new to them, so they are still inexpert. The Zellin also recognize the additional risk that the ship itself would be extremely incriminating if they don’t have more trophies, and an end to the raids, to demonstrate their plan is working.
The PC’s sudden appearance have made the Zellin take action much sooner than they were prepared to do, and with enhanced sensitivity to their own vulnerability. If the Zellin come to suspect or know the PC’s know too much, then they will try to capture and imprison the PC’s. Even if the Zellin do try to explain the full situation, they will do so with so many omissions, furtive glances and apparent contradictions that the truth will be easy to disbelieve..