Naïve scholar, moody elf, and scallywag halfling

It Started in Saltmarsh: Chapter Two

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

Aurora never knew her father, but his elven blood left his mark upon her unmistakably. Her mother spoke fondly of him often, but only when her own father was not about. Grandfather was a wealthy human merchant of Tringlee, the capital of the Duchy of Ulek, and Aurora was born and raised in his household. As the girl had grown from babbling child to discreet young maiden, her mother had explained that her father was a soldier, a guard to an Ulecki elven nobleman sent in a delegation to the Duke, on a diplomatic mission that lasted all of one glorious summer. They met; they fell in love; he returned home before either knew she was with child, and they never saw each other again.

“When you are older,” her mother would say, “When you are a young woman, you will understand such affairs of the heart.”

“Why didn’t you go after him? Why not write to him or try to find him?” Aurora would ask. Her mother never answered directly, but always with a tale or lesson about how some parts of the Duchy were forbidden to humans, about how her grandfather was a good man but was still subject to all the prejudices of men, about how she had known more than one person undone by the deaths of their children, and it was a sad truth that Aurora would surely die before her father did. Always the lesson was different, until Aurora did not know whether the true reason was one of these or some or all or none.

Aurora matured into a highly intelligent child, and quickly surpassed any tutor that her grandfather could provide. A month shy of her twelfth birthday, she saw a mendicant illusionist doing cheap street theatrics in the market square. She had dragged her maid home early from shopping, politely slipped into a business meeting with her grandfather, and announced her intention to be a wizard. His pale Suel skin grew beet red with embarrassment and anger, but his temper subsided quickly, and he sighed with resignation, “Ah, well. Blood will out.”

With her grandfather’s permission, Aurora obtained an apprenticeship with a local Master of History and Magic, an ancient human sage with a lifetime appointment to the Duke’s Court, though one without much power or prestige (which was, he later told Aurora, just how he preferred it). Like all his other apprentices, it seemed she studied just as much history as she did magic, and did more text-copying, book-searching, and scroll-filing than anything else. Yet, over the years, she mastered one spell after another, and delighted in practicing them.

Like all students of history, she knew about the Twin Cataclysms (the Invoked Devastation and the Rain of Colorless Fire), which had, a millennium ago, destroyed the two greatest nations the world had ever known: the Suel Imperium and the Baklunish Empire. She could recite several different authoritative texts (and note their contradictions and discrepancies) explaining how the Suel refugees passed over (or under!) the Hellfurnace Mountains and brought human civilization to the east, eventually founding the Kingdom of Keoland. She could add, and in the presence of her master she would always add, how the people’s reaction to the destruction of their homeland by mages of power had led to a great distrust of magic among the populace, and that for the first five or six hundred years of its existence, the practice of magic was in fact forbidden in the Kingdom. And she would add, again at the insistence of her master, how lucky they were to live in an age and in a nation (for the Duchy was once part of the Kingdom, but was now independent) that were both more tolerant of the craft than the Keoland of old.

On one occasion, her master dismissed the other apprentices and asked Aurora to remain behind. First checking the doors and windows to insure they were tightly closed, he employed a few simple charms and wards to make absolutely sure they were alone. Given the ominous and seemingly clandestine preface to their conversation, Aurora felt some disappointment when he merely asked her to recite the texts concerning the migrations of the Suel houses and the founding of Keoland. Her disappointment grew when he asked her to recite the names of the principle Suel Houses, but she did as he bade.

“And what became of House Neheli?” he asked.

She answered by rote. “They founded Niole Dra and are today the most important noble house in the north of the kingdom.”

“And House Rhola?”

“They founded Gradsul and are today the most important noble house in the south of the kingdom.” She respected her master too much to let her tone of voice betray her boredom and disappointment, But seriously! Why conduct a private lesson to review subject matter well-known to apprentices before their first week of tutelage was completed?

“And House Malhel?” And there she paused. She had read this, of course, but never before had she been asked about the Malhelites.

“Master, those of House Malhel were wicked and fought against the good houses. After many battles they were banished from the kingdom.”

“Correct. And where did they go after that?”

There was a long pause while Aurora searched her memory. “I imagine they dispersed or died out … I have not read any record of them.”

“Indeed. A house powerful enough to war upon the Neheli, and they just faded away?”

“That does not seem likely, but…”

“But that is what the texts would have us believe. Most of them.”

Aurora felt a creeping sensation moving under her skin. She began to think the wards had perhaps been a good idea.

“Suppose,” continued her master, “they did not die out. Not at first anyway. Conjecture,” he demanded.

“Well, they had the hubris to war upon the Neheli, thus they must have been both proud and powerful. Such people are unlikely to give up their aspirations after merely suffering a setback. While they might have fled, migrated out of the Sheldomar, it seems unlikely. More likely they would have withdrawn, regrouped, and planned revenge.”

“Precisely,” her master said, pleased. “Logic is one of your most potent tools as a scholar and wizard, don’t forget that. So why do you suppose you have not seen any records of this?”

“Because they didn’t regroup? Something else ended them before they could?”

“Perhaps, or perhaps they did persist … and any record of their defiance has been destroyed, eliminated, or altered.”

Aurora did not know what to say. Her master had instilled in her a reverence for history so profound that she suddenly felt aghast at the crime against truth. Then, slowly, it dawned on her. Who would have the power to make sure that this history was not known, and what else could someone with that kind of power do? She thought of her master’s wards and shivered.

The old sage lowered his voice to a whisper. “I believe I have uncovered an unedited text, describing how House Malhel retreated to the Dreadwood Forest, and from there planned their revenge. I have another text, very rare but likely authentic, claiming that the Malhel were powerful spellcasters, even while the Neheli and Rhola sought to ban magic. I will not tell you the names of the books or their locations—for your protection, my protection, and theirs. If I were a younger man, I would investigate this myself. But you are my prodigy, the best and brightest student I now possess. I charge you with the task of taking up the hunt for truth.”

Aurora looked at the old man, shocked. “Master, you want me to …”

“Travel to the Dreadwood, and see what clues you can find. Ruins, stories, texts, tales—anything. Perhaps, likely even, you will find nothing. But if I am correct, I believe that someone will find you. Someone will appear and, in the most delicate way, attempt to ascertain what you are seeking and steer you away from any discoveries. And that is precisely what we are after. I don’t expect you to prove that the Malhel were in the Dreadwood. But if you can find proof that someone does not want us to know, then we will be sure that I am on the right track.”

“Master, you honor me with your trust, but this sounds dangerous, and I am yet an apprentice.”

“No, Aurora, you are no longer an apprentice. Yes, I name you journeywoman, as of today. You have earned it. As to the danger, well, certainly there is plenty of danger in the Dreadwood. I suggest you recruit some loyal sellswords, preferably the type who fancy themselves heroes—what is it they call themselves? Ah yes; ‘adventurers.’ With your wit and charm I am sure you can convince them to join you on a quest for treasure in the forest. But the greater danger lies not in mindless monsters, but in whomever is protecting this information—if there is any truth to it at all. And in that you will be safer than I would be, or so I suspect, else I would never send you. Should I, a Master of History, go poking about the forest and asking the wrong questions, it could hardly be done discretely. But you are a young, inexperienced wizard, seeing the world, seeking adventure … what could you possibly know of the quest for ancient, forbidden magic referenced only in the most esoteric texts accessible to a handful of academics?”

“But Master, you have warned me many times against appearing as a wizard in Keoland.”

“True enough, the common folk still harbor many superstitions about our craft. To the commoners you should appear to be nothing more than a young scholar—the daughter of a wealthy merchant pursuing academic interests. But to the more astute and discerning, present yourself as a simple freemage looking for fortune, not a threat to their secret histories. Only you and I can know your real mission.”

“So you ask me to be a historian pretending to be a wizard pretending to be a scholar?”

The old man smiled warmly. “As I said, Aurora, you are my best student. Complete this last task, and you will be a wizard, with the diploma and credentials you so richly deserve.”

Over the next several days they made their plans. Aurora’s master counseled her on purchases to prepare for the trip, supplies to pack for the journey, and prices to pay for goods and services. He warned against trusting herself to adventurers without testing them first. “They must be strong enough, but they must also be simple enough to be easily swayed into doing your will, all the while thinking it their own will. Avoid travelling with another arcane caster, or anyone else with too sharp a mind. When you have found swords you can trust, steer them to the forest, but make it seem as if you merely agree with their own objectives and plans to enter the wood.”

“Anything else?” she asked, as if all that had been suggested so far was not far-fetched enough.

“Yes. Beware the northern Dreadwood. Those woods fall under elven control, and the elves are surely in the pocket of the Lion Throne. You will fare better, I believe, in the dangerous and unexplored south. In those wilder lands, you have a better chance of a real find or, if not that, of at least drawing out those who will not wish you to find anything.”

On the day before her departure, as she cleaned out her desk area in the master’s tower, he burst upon her excitedly with a letter in his hand. “It is done!” he exclaimed, and then proceeded to explain that he had petitioned a friend of a friend within the nobility to provide her a dedicated guard, someone she could trust beyond a mere adventuring oath. He was an elf of the Silverwood, and he would join her when her ship made port in Kewlbanks.

The next day she bid goodbye to her mother, her grandfather, and his household, and boarded the ship on the Kewl. The boat was a passenger vessel, and while it did not provide her with a private cabin, she shared a bunking room with other young ladies, mostly those going to court in Gradsul. It took a bit more than a day to get to Kewlbanks, and as promised, her Silverwood escort awaited her there.

He was not at all as she expected. The elves Aurora knew in Tringlee were all bright, curious, open hearts, free-spirited and polite in speech, forward with questions, and firm in friendship. This one, Babshapka by name, seemed just the opposite. After confirming that she was indeed his charge, he practically ignored her as he boarded the boat and stowed his gear. He asked her no questions and responded to hers with the bare minimum of answers. Nonetheless, he did look capable enough with his massive unstrung longbow always in hand and twin shortsword sheaths crossed across his back. His traveling cloak hung heavily over his frame, and his boots looked well-worn. She had every confidence that the elf would be skilled in woodcraft and capable of guarding her person, but he acted as if conversation posed the more serious threat to safety. Even when she addressed him in her best Elven, he seemed offended by the effort.

Babshapka was a wood elf from deep in the Silverwood, from the part where humans were still not allowed, and that suited him fine. Even at the young age of two and a half centuries, he had seen more than enough of compromises with humans. He was among those who resented the kingdom of Keoland for separating Silverwood from Celene. When the Fey Queen Astaranthe took power in Celene, the King of Keoland was forced to recognize her nation and the right of the Elven Queen to rule. Fearing her power, Keoland created the Ulek States; the Duchy, County, and Principality on its eastern border. When Babshapka was born, the Silverwood was recognized as part of Keoland. Today, the land was considered part of the Duchy of Ulek, and was ruled by elven nobles who were independent of the Lion Throne, but still favored Keoland. Rather than fight for Celene, the elves of Silverwood accepted their new state and status. Rather than push the humans out, they collaborated with them.  Not all of their subjects agreed.

Babshapka preferred to avoid humans and human lands, and he had little use for half-elves either. He was accustomed to his idyllic and isolated sylvan life in the Silverwood, as chief huntsman for his village, respected by his peers, staunch warrior against goblinkind when necessary, but mostly free to live, sing, feast, dance, and hunt. But his village was beholden to an elven noble, and that noble called for a ranger: someone to serve as a guide, guard, and protector to a half-elven child of the Duchy. Babshapka did not volunteer. And yet he was selected. It was an unwanted honor. He gathered all his possessions and bade farewell to his kin. He traveled to the town of Kewlbanks and there met the riverboat with the half-elf on it. She was fair of face, but naïve and obviously raised by humans. She talked incessantly at him. I must serve her by my oaths, and protect her as required by honor, but I do not have to like her.

All the next day they sailed downriver. The green-grey Silverwood passed by on their right and the farms and fields of the County of Ulek on their left. Babshapka leaned against the rail, watching the forest roll past as if in trance. They reached Junre early the next day and spent the remainder of the day in port. He remained sullen and distant. The day after they set sail again, soon reaching the confluence of the Kewl with the mighty Sheldomar. Aurora continued her attempts at conversation, and three days into the journey now, the elf seemed to relent some and become more personable, even willing to exchange a few words with her. She never did realize that, so long as the line of Silverwood had remained in sight, he had been silently singing his farewells to the only home he had ever known.

On arriving in Gradsul, Aurora took charge of the expedition, intending to begin ordering affairs. All the arrangements until then had been made by her master. Unlike the Kewl River, passenger ships did not sail on the dangerous and pirate-ridden Azure Sea. She needed a merchant vessel that would take them on for fares. She had thought the matter simply one of coin, but soon found two impediments. First, ships sailed with only a limited number of berths, and these were always filled. Out on the seas, after the death of a sailor or two, there would be free spaces—but ships left Gradsul fully manned. Second, most of the captains with whom she spoke shook their heads and mumbled, in solemn tones, about the bad luck incurred from having a woman aboard ship. “Best not to offend the Lady of the Waves,” they would say, or, “Osprem is a jealous goddess, love.” After a full day at the docks she had not managed to find them passage anywhere, and she was forced to use more of the meager allowance her master had given her on a second night at the inn.

Before the sun rose, she thought the would rouse her escort for an early start, but she found him already waiting for her in the common room downstairs. Determined to find passage, she arrived at the docks before any of the ships had left. With gloomy and dangerous-looking Babshapka skulking behind her, no man gave her any trouble, but neither did they grant her the passage she sought. She harassed captains from one end of the quay to the other, obtaining no better results than the previous day. Having been turned down yet again, this time by the captain of a cargo ship named The Merchild, she thought her patience surely at an end, when a voice said, “Hold now, Cap’n, surely we can make things right for such a charming lass?”

That remark initiated a spirited discussion between the human captain of the vessel and a most curious hobniz sailor. They exchanged quick remarks so peppered with sea slang that she could scarcely follow of the gist of the debate, but at the end of the argument, the captain of The Merchild acceded to taking both her and her escort on board—albeit for nearly the entire sum she had remaining to her name.

The Merchild was bound for Torvin with a cargo of agricultural implements; spades, plows, sickles, machinery, spirits, medicine, cloth, clothes, boots, and various and sundry other goods in demand on the plantations of the Sea Princes. In the week at sea that followed, Aurora learned about the ship, its crew, and the hobniz Barnabus in particular, as he claimed to be enraptured by her beauty. To her surprise he was not a sailor after all, but an entertainer—or, he preferred to say, “a good luck token.” He did no real work on the ship, but sang often, played the hornpipe, and if the weather was fair, his lute. All sailors are superstitious, but those aboard the The Merchild seemed more so than average. They believed, almost to a man, that Barnabus brought them luck. Certainly he seemed lucky enough, for he won coin nearly every night in the games of dice or cards that took place below decks. Aurora was not permitted to mingle among the men or watch the games, but Babshapka (who slept in a hammock among the reeking sailors) tersely reported to her on the affairs of the crew. Aurora herself had the privilege of staying in a cabin, small and cramped, but private. It turned out that Barnabus had won a week’s stay in the cabin from a foolish first mate and had been waiting for just such an opportunity to cash in his debt. Most of his songs were simple sea shanties to set the pace for the sailors’ work, but for Aurora he played love ballads.  Whenever the captain came with earshot, he changed his tune and sang to the sea itself, or as he claimed, to the goddess Osprem, placating her jealousy over having Aurora on board.

Barnabus was born to a solid farming family of halflings on a pipeweed plantation in the Hold of the Sea Princes. As a child, he did not question their labors, but not far into adolescence he decided that plantation life was not for him. The freeborn halfling community as a whole had a fair and reasonable agreement with the noble human landowner—protection in return for a share of the crop sold at market. And they were not treated poorly—certainly not as poorly as the human slaves on other plantations nearby. It was not even that the work was long and hard (although it was). Really, it was that it was boring. Monotonous, even. Barnabus’ family, like all good halflings, valued security and comfort over most anything else, but he felt that excitement and freedom were worth a little discomfort and danger.

He decided to run away to “the city,” so he called it in his youthful naïvety, Mantan being the only city he knew. It did not take him long to run out of coin, and he soon found himself hiding on a ship to escape an angry innkeeper. When the ship sailed with him on it, he became a cabin boy. Humans always seemed unsure of the age of a halfling, due to their small size, and a halfling with any cleverness could quickly convince a human that he was yet a child, or a man grown, as need dictated.

Barnabus enjoyed the seafaring life. He liked the colorful language, the interesting men, their stories and songs, the fascinating destinations, each different than the last. He did not like the buggery. All the other duties of a cabin boy were easy, but he drew the line when he learned about that and immediately explained that he was a man grown after all. That put him in a difficult position, halfway through his first voyage. If he were a man, why then he was expected to do a man’s work on the ship—and though he was as strong as any of the human men, he did not have the size to go into the rigging, the weight to haul lines, and so forth. And if he could not do a sailing man’s work by day, and he would not do the night work of a cabin boy, then what good was he? Well, I can play, he thought, for he had always been considered a good player, both for work songs and in worship on the plantation. With borrowed hornpipes he performed the pieces he knew and set about learning those of the sailors. His efforts mollified the sailors themselves, but the officers told him he would have to pay for his passage. He had always been a bit of a card sharp, and he found the sailors such easy marks that by the end of the voyage he had enough coin to pay his passage and had a number of sailors praising his luck.

Over the next few years he perfected this craft and saved enough to buy a quality lute. He performed at port towns all over the Azure Sea and found it easy to earn coin enough for meals and lodging wherever he went. Sometimes on a bad night or with a sullen crowd he did not get much, but a quick dip in the pockets of the drunkenmost patrons usually did the trick. When he had “played out” a port (or received a visit from the local Thieves’ Guild demanding a membership fee and a cut of his take), he found passage on a ship to somewhere new. Fresh on board The Merchild, he persuaded the sailors that his songs to Osprem, the Lady of the Waves, brought good luck and good weather, and in exchange for that service, he received his berth for free and meals as well more often than not. Those aboard who doubted his luck were soon convinced otherwise after a few games of cards or dice.

When it came to seducing Aurora, however, the halfling’s luck seemed to falter. Though he labored over her the entire next week, employing all his best ballads, she refused to yield so much as a kiss or even a sigh! Perhaps it’s the close quarters and watchful eyes of the crew. I might find better fortune on land—if I could just get her away from that damnable wood elf! After several days, some of the sailors were even starting to doubt him. “Lucky at cards, unlucky in love…” they said helpfully, but he was unnerved by the jibe, and once they almost caught him cheating. Me! I never get caught! he scolded himself.

Few ships sailed west, for it went against current and often against wind, so Aurora had been fortunate in that regard to find passage aboard the Merchild. She told the captain that they would disembark when the ship took on fresh water in Seaton. When she had made plans with her master, they had considered the two ports south of the Dreadwood: Anglar and Seaton, deciding upon Seaton as the place from which she should begin her investigation. Though farther from the forest, Seaton was the larger of the two options and would give her more chance to assemble the team she needed without drawing any immediate suspicion. But when, a week into their voyage, The Merchild rounded Cape Salinmoor, the captain told them that the wind blew amiss and that he would be making port in Saltmarsh instead, a small fishing village rather than the county seat. Aurora did not have near enough coin to persuade him to fight the wind, and by this point, Barnabus, weary of her rebuffs to his advances, did not seem interested in interceding on her behalf either. Instead, the halfling bade farewell to his shipmates, telling them that he too would be going ashore for a short spell at Saltmarsh to spend their wages.

As evening fell, Aurora, Babshapka, and Barnabus disembarked at Saltmarsh. In the gathering dusk, the setting sun reflected off the Azure Sea and a cool salt breeze blew over the docks. The town of Saltmarsh seemed quaint and picturesque to Aurora, and she resolved not to let the unanticipated change in plans perturb her. My master sent me, rather than another student, because he trusted me to resolve just such unforeseen difficulties, after all.

By the time the three of them had gathered their gear and walked the gangplank to the dock, the captain and mate of the Merchild were engaged in conversation with a local customs officer.

“We’ll not be unloading any goods. We’ll only be taking on water, as soon in the morning as you can arrange, and we’ll be paying with crowns of the realm,” the captain told the dockman. The appearance of the trio briefly distracted the officer, but the captain assured them, “They are passengers only, harmless folks.” The officer waved them on distractedly and resumed his conversation.

Most of the ship’s crew lined up along the sheer strake, waiting to see whether they would be granted shore leave. While Aurora’s back was turned to them and Babshapka was looking warily up the quay, Barnabus caught the crew’s attention and made a lewd gesture, suggesting that he would indeed have the woman soon enough now that they were on land – he had even recently hinted that it had been her idea, that she had begged him to go ashore with her. A laughing cheer rose from the crew in response. Aurora turned back to the Merchild, utterly oblivious to the source of the jest, and waved a farewell, which drew a second cheer for Barnabus.

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

Don’t miss chapter three of  It Started in Saltmarsh. Follow for the next exciting chapter. 

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