It Started in Saltmarsh

Chapter One

Dirty dwarf, disgraced paladin, half-orc fugitive

By Kirt Wackford
A Dungeons & Dragons campaign adaptation edited by Thomas Kelly and Greyhawkstories

At three years old the child was developing like any dwarven infant—he could crawl and babble but not yet walk or talk. He had come into the world in gilded halls deep beneath the Cyrstalmist Mountains, born to a wealthy, prosperous clan of mountain dwarves. But the happy parents did not have long to dote over the Dumathoin’s gift. They were among those chosen to pioneer a new colony, for their clan looked to expand its holdings by starting daughter colonies and exploring new mines. They set out overland with the child still in his mother’s arms.

What should have been a short journey to an already-secured fortification instead turned into a nightmare and tragic end to all their aspirations. A raiding party of ogres, bugbears, and goblins boldly ambushed the caravan. A long, bloody, and desperate battle ensued. The child’s mother was the last dwarf to die, which she did bravely, but not until she had hidden her son beneath some bundles in a mule cart.

The goblins began leading the live mules away while the ogres feasted on the dead ones. The child would certainly have been discovered had not, by chance, a huge bear came upon the scene. It must have been a cave bear, for it towered over even the ogres. As it scooped up goblins and crushed them under its mighty paws, the terrified raiders fled. Then, the bear was gone. An elderly man probed at the cart with his staff, seeking the source of a baby’s cry which he had somehow heard through the din of the battle. The man took the dwarven babe and retreated to his cave before the goblinkind could regroup.

These things happened late in the fall of the year. All through that winter the old man cared for the babe. He gave the child the name Larrenthal—not a proper dwarfish name at all. By the spring, “Little Larry” was walking and talking—but his first spoken words were in Flan, not the tongue of the dwarves.

The old man knew little of dwarves. His was the world of sky and streams, sun and meadows, herbcraft and druidlore. He thought to return the babe to the first group of dwarves he found in the spring. Little did he know that the caravan massacre had prompted the dwarves of the area into a series of local wars and genocidal campaigns against the humanoids that lasted for years. Dwarves aboveground had been rare before the war, but now they were simply not to be found except in military hosts, none of which passed near the alpine valley that was the druid’s home.

The first dwarven explorers to arrive after the war came seeking pastureland for their goats. An old man, hobbling along on a staff and with a dwarven child in tow hailed them from a distance. The child was not more than ten winters; he spoke not one word of their language. Of course they knew the story of the massacre; of course they knew to which clan Larrenthal belonged; of course they offered to return the child to his people. But when Little Larry came back to the cold stone halls of his father’s clan, he found all of his near kinsmen had been killed in the wars. True, he had distant cousins who did their duty and took him into their care. But what were they to make of the boy who cried at the dark, who begged in Flan to see the sun and feel the wind, and who could speak not even one word of Dwarven? The boy preferred mud to woolens and trees to forges. After two weeks, “Dirty Larry” pleaded to be returned to the old man—and his kinsmen required little persuasion; they did not even consider Larrenthal a “real dwarf,” but a strange and wild “bear boy.”

The old bear-man took the child back. In the ensuing decades, he tutored Larrenthal in the ways of the Old Faith, the Great Circle of the Flan, the names of all the gods and spirits of the woods and hills and mountains. Larrenthal grew and learned. When whiskers first began to darken his chin, his foster father initiated him into the First Mystery and told him that, to learn more, he would have to apprentice to another druid. No, he could not apprentice under the old man—they were too close and the code of the druids prohibited apprenticeships within family. “Besides,” the old druid explained, “I am far too old to school you further. You must go to the Great Druidess, the head of my order, and see if she accepts you. She holds moot in the Dreadwood, far to the south. It is a longer journey than I care to make, and the way passes through lands far too civilized for me. But I know of a remote temple to the Old Faith in the country of Sterich. I can take you that far. We need not cross many farms or fields—just a few valleys away from us.”

The short journey took them weeks, scaling the mountainsides up, down, and across. The old man approached the temple warily, for in truth he seldom spoke to men, but the head priest knew the Old Ways well and welcomed them in the temple garden. He agreed to take Larrenthal in, and find a guide to take him to the Great Druidess. Larrenthal wept for the first time in many years, and he would have had the old man stay if he could have moved his heart. The old man said, “Let your sadness be your final lesson from me. Is not sorrow and loss also a part of the cycle of life?”

Larrenthal had not been at the temple a se’nnight when the head priest introduced him to a young man called Tyrius, a bright young paladin of Pelor, of sixteen years, not more, shining like a newly-minted coin. The pair were a perfect contrast—the tall, handsome, worldly, noble-born youth and the short, stout, grubby dwarf who went everywhere barefoot, had atrocious table manners, and could barely speak the Common Tongue. The dwarf introduced himself, “Larrenthal, but some call me Dirty Larry.” Tyrius realized at once that Pelor was putting his faith to the test.

The head priest explained the mission, “The dwarf is to be escorted to the moot of the Great Druidess, deep in the Dreadwood. You will provide the escort and protect him from harm. This will be your first official duty as a crusader of the Shining One.”

The shrine brothers gave Tyrius and Larry just enough food for their journey overland to the headwaters of the Davish River and just enough coin to book passage for them both in a merchant ship bound for Gradsul. In that great city the brothers of the great Temple of Pelor would provide aid for the last leg of the journey.

Tyrius escorted “Dirty Larry” down the valley into the lands of men in Sterich proper. Every hamlet they passed seemed a city to Larry, but the hamlets grew into thorps, the thorps to villages. In a bustling river-village, Tyrius looked for passage on a boat headed downriver. They found a riverboat carrying refined ores from the mountain mines. The dense cargo left plenty of deck space for passengers, and Tyrius booked passage. The captain was a foul and grasping sort whom Tyrius took to be another great test of his faith.

The bargemen navigated by day and pulled up at night, for the swift mountain river had many rapids that could only be safely run in the light. They had been on the water just a few days when came a misty morning. The captain advanced the boat slowly, but then ordered his men to make camp when they spied the first set of rapids. He said he would pilot her later in the day, only after the sun had burned off the mists. As bad luck would have it, that very bank of the river was a favored place of ambush for a band of hobgoblins who preyed upon the river traffic. The raiders fell upon the camp in the mist and a half-dozen guards were slain in the space of a few minutes. The remaining guards, crewmen and passengers too, with Tyrius among them, rallied and carried the day. The surviving hobgoblins fell back to lick their wounds.

As the crew attended to the dead and wounded, the mists cleared, revealing a curious sight—a towering, misshapen man stood among the slain. He seemed just as surprised to see the rivermen as they him, and he produced a huge axe and began some type of incantation or chant. The bargemen surrounded him and prepared for another fight.

Something about the misshapen man stirred Tyrius’ sympathies. Through the grace of Pelor, he looked upon the half-orc and understood that he was not one of the attackers. His mind returned to the lessons he had learned about Saint Jalnir the Gentle, a half-orc Peloran priest of legend. Tyrius knew that the divine will of Pelor was in this meeting. He stepped forward. He saw fear in the man’s eyes, and his heart was moved. Approaching slowly, with hands open, unarmed and clad in his white Pelorian robe, he was obviously not one of the guards, and he hoped the axe-bearing half-blood would understand that he meant him no mischief. Their eyes locked. The half-blood could see genuine concern and compassion in this man’s eyes—unlike the fear and loathing he saw in the eyes of the guards. He slowly lowered the axe and ceased his death chant.

Tyrius beckoned him and led the stranger to the river’s edge where he showed him the corpse of a hobgoblin so recently slain. “These raiders attacked us and shed the blood of our people,” Tyrius explained. “These men think you came against us along with them.”

“I am no friend of hobgoblins. I did not lift my axe against your people. I did not know of the raiders or the raid. I only came to the sound of voices, hoping to find a meal.”

“We can offer more than a meal. Take passage with us down the river. The next time raiders come, we could use your axe.”

The captain objected, “Not on my boat! By the gods!”

Tyrius argued, “We need more guards to replace our losses if we hope to survive the rest of the journey downstream.”

The captain hissed, “He will just as likely slit our throats at the first opportunity.”

Tyrius pressed the captain to accept the misshapen man into his service and offered his own guarantee for him. “How much would it cost you to replace these slain guardsmen, simple sellswords who had never been in a battle before today, when we could have this seasoned warrior for free?”

The captain did not trust the stranger further than he could spit, but he saw the sense in Tyrius’ words, and his greed compelled him. He gave the man a berth in the ship and meals, and he let him act as a guardsman without pay. The other guards grumbled and cursed the stranger all the way downriver, past the confluence with the Javan and then the Hool, until the ship entered the trackless Hool Marshes. Larrenthal learned from the mutterings of the rivermen that the man was not misshapen. In fact, he was a half-orc barbarian, a wild raider from the mountains who was fleeing his home. The stranger proved himself and the metal of his axe soon enough. In fights with lizardfolk, marsh orcs, and bullywugs, Thokk and his great axe slew more than any of the others. The grumblings ceased.

The rivermen and guards were all the more amazed when, on a certain evening, Thokk produced a flute from among his bundles and entertained the guards and the boatmen with a melody. They all gathered around and demanded another song, and after that, another. Most of the melodies sounded familiar to their ears, not unlike the tunes played by bards and musicians in the remotes villages of Sterich and Geoff, which were home to some of them.

“From whence did a half-orc learn the art of the flute?” Tyrius asked.

“My mother was a human captive in the harem of my father, the orc chieftain of my tribe,” Thokk explained to Larrenthal and Tyrius. “From her I learned to play the flute. She taught me all the melodies she knew; she used to play for my father and entertain him and all the valiant warriors who reclined at his table. She died before my seventh winter ended, but I remained a favorite at my father’s side, entertaining him and his personal guard with melodies from mother’s flute as they lounged about after feasts and ruts.”

“Did you also learn the Common Tongue from your mother?” Tyrius asked. “You speak eloquently despite your orcish accent.”

“Only did my mother speak to me in the tongue of men. Being in my father’s court, I also learned the tongues of visitors, for our tribe was important, indeed. Dignitaries of goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, even human priests and bandits, all passed through my father’s halls, and I found I had talent with languages. I served many years beside my father as his interpreter, and he sent me at times as his messenger to the holds of men and even the court of Threshell the Bugbear King. But my father is dead now, slain at the hands of my own half-brother, and that one would have slain me too if I had not fled. I will find my mother’s people, and make a new home among them.”

Larrenthal thought this tale most remarkable and not unlike to his own. “So we are the misfits, you and I! Dirty Larry and Thokk the half-blood!”

“Call me a misfit too,” Tyrius said, and found himself telling his tale. In his youth he had often complained of his fate, but this was different.  This was the first time he had spoken of himself since he took his Vow of Humility, and his perspective was very different than in the past. “I am noble-born to an old and prestigious Sterich family, kinsmen to the Earl of Sterich. I was raised to be at home among the cultured, sophisticated, wealthy, and elite, but my father’s lands were smaller than his title was due. My eldest brother stood to inherit those lands, barely enough to maintain the family’s privilege. My eldest brother was the heir, my older brother was the spare, and I, as a third son, was just an inconvenience.

“I was barely twelve when they sent me away to take holy orders. I went to a large and respected temple in Istivin. I didn’t appreciate how much the family had paid for this; I only knew that I was not willing to trade my life of privilege for scrubbing floors as a novice. I complained constantly, got into fights with the other novices, and I found no patrons among the clergy-teachers, none who were willing to advance my position.

“After several miserable months the priests in exasperation sent me to a temple of Hieroneous. At least the drudgery was supplemented with martial training, which I enjoyed and excelled at. But the clergy there demanded strict obedience and deference, and I never missed an opportunity to remind the low-born war priests that regardless of their rank within the church, I was still their social better. After I had insulted my trainers one too many times, they punished me by sending me to a remote shrine to Pelor. I thought to myself, ‘Am I to serve a Flan deity for godssake – a god with no noble patrons and no presence at court, a lingering, embarrassing reminder of the conquered aboriginal people and their backward Old Faith?’ When my mother learned of this latest humiliation, she sent me a final letter. My family had enough of my foolishness, they ended my allowance, and they did not want to hear any more from me until I had been made a priest of some faith—any faith.

“I was the only novice among a handful of priests at the small shrine. My life was cutting wood, milking goats, and dipping candles, but the brother-priests worked alongside me rather than lording it over me. As much as I railed at them and cursed my misfortune, they only smiled back. All the other, previous, priests had risen to my challenges, been insulted by my abuse—but these priests of Pelor were so selfless, so self-effacing. They honestly cared about me and ignored my tirades. Through their kindness, Pelor won my heart. This journey is my first quest as a paladin in his name, the first of my trials.”

“I know nothing of the gods of men. I worship Gruumsh, as do all my kin,” Thokk said thoughtfully.

Tyrius shuddered at that, but continued sincerely, “From my brethren in  Pelor, I learned an honest desire for goodness in the world. Helping people seemed a more fulfilling path than the anxious social scrambling of my own noble family. I’m not perfect. I still have a temper and a sharp tongue, but I try.”

Thokk shook his head, unable to make sense of a god that desired honesty and goodness, humility and patience, in his followers.

“So we are all three of us misfits in the world,” Larrenthal declared. “We had best stick together.”

Those words proved prophetic. When the ship emerged from the dangerous swamplands and docked in the port of Saltmarsh, the captain insisted that Thokk go ashore. “I’ve just been made to pay for the King’s Protection from here to Gradsul,” he said, “And I’ll be damned if I am taking a free-loading orc bastard all the way to Gradsul now that we’ve left the combats behind.”

This change of plan pleased Tyrius not at all. He argued with the captain past his patience, pleading sympathy for the half-orc and reminding the captain of how the man had bravely fought beside them to deliver them safely thus far. The argument ended only when the captain put the crusader off the boat too, along with his young dwarf friend. “If you are so concerned for the half-blood, go see to himself yourself. You will not be riding my vessel any further.”

Tyrius had some coin left in his purse, but he doubted it was enough to book passage for himself on another ship to Gradsul, let alone the three of them. And what was he supposed to do with the half-orc now? He had naively assumed that the captain would have been so pleased with Thokk’s performance in the marshes that he would have taken him on as a paid guard upon reaching Gradsul. But now, he could hardly leave the savage warrior with no means of employment in a peaceful port town—that was surely asking for trouble.

In truth, it all seemed no great loss to Larrenthal, for the town was a scant few leagues overland from the Dreadwood—the place for which he travelled—but Tyrius seemed put out. “True, we are now only a few leagues from the Dreadwood, but we stand on the wrong side of that vast forest. I paid for passage to Gradsul, from where we could take the King’s Road to the northern side of the forest, and once there find an elven guide to the moot of the Great Druidess within. Entering here, on the south side, would mean crossing leagues of dangerous forest infested by goblinkind, with no idea of where we are going or how to get there.”

The stevedores unloaded their gear, and Tyrius slipped them a copper each. Surrounded by a clutter of their bundles and their weapons, the ragged half-orc, the polished paladin, and the bare-footed hairy dwarf stood together on the docks of Saltmarsh, watching their boat cast off without them.

Used with permission. Adapted for from the original article posted to Canonfire! 2/23/2018;

Don’t miss chapter two of  It Started in Saltmarsh: “Naïve scholar, moody elf, and scallywag halfling.”

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